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Criminal Law
St. Johns University School of Law
Simons, Michael A.

Criminal Law – Outline

I. Introduction

General Part – Basic Components:
1. Actus Reus à act + harm
2. Mens Rea à intent
3. Causation à causation

Act (actus reus) + Mental State (mens rea) + Causation = Crime

– Defenses means the D is guilty, but there is something else why they should not be convicted
– Inchoate and Strict Liability crimes do not need all of the elements above

Sources of Criminal Law:
– Codification of common law (CA)
– Model Penal Code (MPC)
– New York Penal Law à MPC was very influential

II. Theoretical Underpinnings

A. Principles of Punishment:

Theories of Punishment: (Judge in People v. Du relied on these theories for sentencing)
– Utilitarian
o General deterrence
o Specific deterrence
o Incapacitation
o Rehabilitation
– Retributive
o Negative Retrib à Desert allows punishment
o Positive Retrib à Desert requires punishment (based on harm and culpability)

***Use basic objectives (Utilitarian and Retributive) to make arguments about sentencing***

United States v. Gementeraà Should shaming penalties be part of the criminal justice system? We should try to balance social goals and aims w/ retribution, and we should be careful of shaming penalties b/c they express mean values of society.

Proportionality: What makes a punishment excessive under the 8th Amendment?

Death Penalty Casesà Uses a two prong Util and Retrib Test
1. If it doesn’t contribute to goals of punishment (retribution, deterrence, incapacitation, rehabilitation) à Util Argument
2. Is grossly out of proportion to the severity of the crime à Retrib Argument
Everything Elseà There is no more retributive analysis. Use a utilitarian general deterrence argument only.
1. If it doesn’t advance the goals of its criminal justice system in a substantial way? à Util general deterrence argument

B. Legality

Policies Underlying Legality:

Democratic Legitimacy


Constitutional Prohibitions:

Ex post facto clause à Prohibits retroactive lawmaking by legislatures
Due process clause à Prohibits retroactive lawmaking by judges

General Principles:

Crimes must be defined by the legislature
Legislature cannot create retroactive crimes

Ex post facto clause

Judges can/must interpret legislative definitions
Unfairly ambiguous statutes may be unconstitutional

Notice issue (bad b/c we won’t know what conduct is prohibited)

Overly broad statutes may be unconstitutional

Arbitrariness of enforcement/punishing legally protected acts is bad

Lenityà Rule that statutes should be interpreted in favor of D. Now it is only used as a tie-breaker. MPC and NYPL did NOT adopt this.

III. The General Part

1. You have to find Actus Reas (a voluntary act OR


Maliceà D acts intentionally or w/ reckless disregard of an obvious or known risk – only a reasonable mistake is a defense (this is b/c the definition of malice has the obvious risk in the definition).

Arson – the malicious burning of another’s dwelling

Specific Intentà the D acts with a specific objective – any mistake will be a defense

Burglary – intent to commit a felony inside

Strict Liabilityà no mental state requirement – mistake is not a defense (not ever)

Statutory rape – sex w/ someone under the age of consent

At common law (only) à Mens Rea usually did not apply to attendant circumstances

For general intent element, only a reasonable mistake is a defense
For a specific intent element, any mistake (even if unreasonable) is a defense

Mistake à Not a separate doctrine from mens rea

Statutory approaches:
But now the modern approach (model penal code) is to address the mental state.
The great thing about the model penal code is that it gets ride of all of the common law definitions of common law mental states and mistakes.