Mens Rea vs. Actus Reus: Difference & Comparison

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  • 0:04 Mens Rea and Actus Reus
  • 2:12 The Elements in Depth
  • 3:46 Comparisons
  • 4:14 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Tisha Collins Batis

Tisha is a licensed real estate agent in Texas. She holds bachelor's in legal studies and a master's degree in criminal justice.

This lesson will define the terms mens rea and actus reus in criminal justice. The differences between the two will be discussed so the reader will be able to compare these terms effectively.

Mens Rea and Actus Reus

Mens rea and actus reus are elements of criminal activity. For example, let's consider your hypothetical acquaintance, Tabitha. She has instigated a number of fights with several other women in the last few months. Some of her behavior could be explained by her being under a lot of stress due to not being able to get her dream job. One day, she saw another woman she didn't like at the grocery store. They had both been dating the same man at one point, and Tabitha had been hoping to teach the other woman a lesson for a long time. The lesson was to stay away from any man Tabitha had an interest in.

There was a broom nearby, and Tabitha grabbed it. She walked up behind the woman and began to beat her with the broom. Tabitha purposely attacked the other woman (this was her intent) by hitting her repeatedly with the broom (that was her action). It's pretty likely Tabitha will face charges for committing a crime, because both mens rea and actus reus were involved.

Mens rea is the intent a person has behind committing a crime. Typically, there has to be intent behind the crime, but this isn't required in every situation. For example, if a person has committed a crime that is a strict liability crime, the criminal intent element doesn't have to exist. In Tabitha's example, she purposely went after the other woman in the grocery store.

Actus reus is the action the person takes to perform the criminal act. This is the physical action behind the crime. One important thing to note is that, if the physical action is a reflex, this is not criminal. In Tabitha's example, she swung the broom to hit the other woman on purpose. It wasn't a reflex action on her part, so it met the criminal element.

Tabitha seems to cause a lot of trouble, and when she gets into fights with several women over a few months, then it appears that she is intentionally committing crimes. She may blame her actions on her own temper, but the nature of her crimes tend to make most of us believe that she is probably the one to blame. If the other women aren't also involved in several fights and Tabitha is the only one out of the group of people involved in these assaults who is, that somewhat implies that she's really the one to blame.

The Elements in Depth

There are particular elements within both mens rea and actus reus to be considered. It isn't always as simple as a woman purposely going after another with a broom and hitting that victim with a broom for a crime to actually occur. The following will provide more in depth information for each.

Many states consider the four categories of the Model Penal Code when determining if mens rea exists in a crime. These four categories are:

  • Acting purposely (as Tabitha did)
  • Acting knowingly
  • Acting recklessly
  • Acting negligently

While a crime that falls under strict liability doesn't exactly fit with these four categories, it's also considered. Some states don't consider the categories of the Model Penal Code and instead consider the existence of malice behind a crime. This includes express malice (which means deliberately harming the victim) and implied malice (which means an offender's indifference to the harm he/she may bring to a victim). In Tabitha's case, express malice would likely apply. She went after the other woman with the intent to harm her.

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