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The Structure of Crimes

    Criminal Law lacked sufficient coherence to permit ALI members to identify black letter law. States varied from one another in their approaches to basic questions; states often lacked coherence even within the state law itself. Below, I discuss “specific” and “general” intent in more detail. Here, in passing, I note that the Model Penal Code drafters abandoned those terms because they lacked meaning. The terms varied when one compared their use across the country and even within the same jurisdiction. As a result, the drafters started anew and recommended a coherent approach to the criminal law.

    Most modern Criminal Law case books follow the lead of the MPC. Before defining specific crimes, the Code addresses general provisions. My lectures will cover three of the most important general provisions found in the Code. The first is the general notion, almost universally followed, that a crime must consist of a voluntary act, “actus reus,” or, less frequently, a culpable omission. The second is that a legislature should include in the definition of a crime a culpable mental state (“mens rea”). A well designed code should also clarify whether the mens rea attaches to all of the various other elements of the crime. (E.g., if a legislature makes it unlawful to “intentionally damage the property of another,” does the legislature intend to make the crime complete as long as the offender intends to damage property? Or must the prosecutor show that the offender also intended to damage what she knew to be the property of another? Closely related to the discussion of the relevant mens rea is the third important code provision: what is the legal significance of an offender’s mistake of law or fact?

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