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Criminal Law
Rutgers University, Newark School of Law
Green, Stuart

Criminal Law Outline

Basically all criminal law is statutory.

Felony = punishable by 6 months in jail or more

Misdemeanor = punishable by 6 months in jail or less

To obtain a conviction, prosecution must prove the following beyond a reasonable doubt:

Actus Reus – a criminal act/failure to act


Mens Rea – culpable state of mind/intent


Absence of Defense –

1. Justification = “you did the right thing” (i.e.

necessity, self-defense, etc.)

2. Excuse = “you were wrong but, we understand

this time, don’t do it again” (i.e.

insanity, duress, etc.

All Crimes Have Several Basic Common Elements:

1) a voluntary act (actus reus)

2) a culpable intent (mens rea)

3) concurrence between #1 & #2

4) causation of harm

Elements of Criminal Law:

1) Culpability = Actus Reus + Mens Rea

2) Legality = “no crime without preexisting law”. This trumps any other rules if

there is a conflict. Courts don’t create crimes. Statutes must be

written clearly, and interpreted to the benefit of the accused.

3) Proportionality = the punishment used must proportional and reasonable in

relation to the harm threatened/committed.

I. Principles of Punishment

Punishment = pain applied to a person by society in response to that individual’s

violation of a law

Two Schools as to what justifies punishment:

1. Utilitarian = Punishment has useful purposes; goal should be to increase the total happiness of society; it should only be allowed if it allows for a greater overall level of pleasure; benefits include:

a. General deterrence – meaning that people will be less likely to commit

crimes in general because they know there’s a chance they’ll be


b. Specific deterrence – the experience of being punished once for an act

will influence an individual to not commit that act again

c. Incapacitation – imprisonment keeps criminals off the streets

d. Reform – through treatment and education individuals can be made happier and less likely to commit crimes in the future

Four cases where punishment is not warranted:

1. When there is no bad act to prevent

2. When it won’t work – won’t have a preventative effect

3. When the cost exceeds the benefit

4. When the bad act can be prevented in another, cheaper way

2. Retributivism = People ought to be punished because they deserve it. (It is natural and morally right to hate criminals.) A major foundation of criminal law; D is forced to pay back what he/she took; justification for it is: “an eye for an eye…”

II. Actus Reus

Actus reus can be interpreted to include your conduct, the harm that your conduct caused, plus the causal link between the conduct and the harm. Murder requires a physical result (a dead person). Some crimes, however, don’t require a result immediately caused by your conduct (e.g. drunk driving). They may require something called social harm.

A. Voluntary Act: Mere thoughts are never punishable as crimes.

MPC §2.01 (p. 1041): Requirement of Voluntary Act; Omission as a Basis of Liability; Possession as an Act

“A person is not guilty of an offense unless his ability is based on conduct which includes a voluntary act or the omission to perform an act of which he is physically capable. The following are not voluntary acts:

1) a reflex or convulsion

2) a bodily movement during unconsciousness or sleep (“autopilot”)

3) conduct during hypnosis or resulting form hypnotic suggestion

4) a bodily movement that otherwise is not a product of the effort or

determination of the actor, either conscious or habitual….”

Martin v. State (p. 173): Police take drunken man from his home, drive him out to the interstate, and then arrest him for

te a Legal Duty of Care:

1) by statute

2) by contract

3) by relationship (limited to specific relations)

4) by assuming responsibility and/or taking victim to an isolated place

5) by creating the peril

B. Social Harm: Social harm means any harm to any socially valuable interest, and it has three components: (1) result elements, (2) conduct elements, and (3) attendant circumstances. It is often difficult to draw a distinction between the result of an act and the conduct related to an act, but it usually doesn’t matter. However, you must draw the distinction between these two elements and attendance circumstance.

MPC §2.01(1) – includes a voluntary act or the omission to perform an act of which he is physically capable.

III. Mens Rea (aka mind state required for culpability)

Most crimes require a true mens rea, that is, a state of mind that is truly guilty. But other crimes are defined to require merely “negligence” or “recklessness”, which is not really a state of mind at all. Nonetheless, the term mens rea is sometimes used for these crimes as well: thus one cay say that “for manslaughter, the mens rea is recklessness.” There are also a few crimes defined so as to require no mens rea at all, to so-called “strict liability” crimes. Important b/c culpability is the basis of punishment.

Purpose = the act done to achieve a motive (i.e. killing a person)

Motive = eventual desires of the act (i.e. to collect the insurance $)

General v. Specific Intent: This distinction has been largely abandoned (MPC instead)

1) General Intent = a crime for which it must merely be shown that D desired to commit the act which served as the actus reus for the crime (i.e. D intends to touch another in an offensive way, so he has the general intent/all that is required to commit battery)