by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
New York’s governor, at a recent event, casually admitted to a federal crime. Presented by itself the fact sounds shocking, though upon learning the details people are likely to be a little less bothered. After all, Cuomo was not aware that his action was a crime, and the crime itself — the collection of a bald eagle’s feather while on an outdoor vacation — might easily be understood as an honest mistake.
In our dealings, we generally try to take one another’s intentions into account. Our legal system has historically reflected this principle, but it has eroded considerably — and the effect has made itself known harshly in the lives of many. As a violator of the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, Cuomo could have faced a fine of up to $5,000 and the possibility of a year in prison. …
… Today, intent standards vary by criminal statute and sometimes are missing entirely. Higher levels of mens rea might require the government to prove that the accused did something intentionally, or even that he knew his actions were illegal (overturning the usual rule that ignorance of the law is no excuse). But when there is no intent requirement at all, “strict liability” applies, and someone can be found guilty regardless of what he intended or how innocuous his conduct was.