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Establishing state of mind in a criminal case

For an individual in California who is facing charges, state of mind during a criminal act is important. This is often referred to as "mens rea," a legal term that means guilty mind. An example might be a pedestrian who is killed in an accident. The case will be approached differently based on whether the driver attempted to brake or deliberately aimed to hit the pedestrian.

While "negligence" is generally a matter for civil cases, it is also possible for negligence to rise to the level of criminal behavior. Leaving items out where someone trips on them and is hurt might be simple negligence. However, it might be considered criminal negligence if the items were extremely dangerous and led to serious injury.

Prosecutors also have to consider whether a defendant intentionally broke the law. "Mistake in fact" refers to a person who commits a criminal act unintentionally. An example would be someone thinking that an illegal drug is another substance. A "mistake in law" would be if the person knew the drug was cocaine but not that it was illegal. In the former case, criminal charges would be less likely than in the latter. For some crimes, such as statutory rape, intent does not matter. Other terms used to describe state of mind include "knowingly," "maliciously," "willingly" and with "specific intent." Establishing state of mind can be a vital part of a person's defense.

A person who is facing criminal charges might want to discuss the concept of mens rea with an attorney. For example, the person may have acted unknowingly or unintentionally. A person facing drug charges might have moved material for a friend without realizing that drugs were involved. There may be other defenses available as well.

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