News Story

Gov. Snyder Signs Bill That Makes 'Guilty Mind' Necessary For Convictions

Criminal justice reform in Michigan

House Bill 4713, a measure to prevent people from being convicted for unknowingly violating the law — something that has become increasingly likely as the number of regulations has increased — has been signed by Gov. Rick Snyder. The bill was passed unanimously by both chambers of the Michigan Legislature.

The new law restores a key standard used to define criminal liability. That standard is "mens rea," which is Latin for “the guilty mind.” The bill requires that unless a law specifically states otherwise, prosecutors must show that a defendant intended to break the law in order to get a conviction.

“It was really great to have this legislation finally move through,” said Rep. Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan, the sponsor of the legislation. “It is something that’s long overdue, especially as you see, at the state and even the national level, regulations being continually passed that seem to criminalize nearly all things.”

“This is a big deal,” McBroom added. "Legislators have a tendency to forget there is a need to be very specific when they give regulatory powers to agencies and that there really needs to be some sort of intent behind these things. With this legislation, we’ve built a strong wall to defend people from being made inadvertent criminals over actions varying from the way they fill out a campground form to watching over their neighbors’ kids when there is some sort of departmental rule against doing so.”

While the number of the state’s regulatory crimes has increased, the concept of mens rea has consistently been omitted from statutes, leaving people ensnared by laws they never meant to violate. One example is the case of Allen Taylor, a Sparta business owner who unknowingly became a criminal by expanding an employee parking lot onto what state officials had classified as a wetland.

After Taylor was found guilty and ordered to pay $8,500 in fines and costs, Michigan Supreme Court Justice Stephen Markman called on the Legislature to clarify statutes that criminalize administrative offenses. House Bill 4713 was a response to Markman’s concerns.

“The consequences of criminal liability are devastating, and citizens should not be convicted of crimes unless and until it has been proven that they actually intended to break the law,” said Mark P. Fancher, an attorney with the ACLU of Michigan’s Racial Justice Project. “This legislation helps to ensure the integrity and effectiveness of a system that is intended to punish the guilty and acquit those whose guilt has not been proven. The legislation is also a testament to the value of collaboration by those of all political persuasions who share a commitment to the most fundamental principles of justice and liberty.”

Both the ACLU and the Mackinac Center for Public Policy testified in favor of the change.

“Traditionally, prosecutors had to show a person acted with a guilty state of mind in order to get a criminal conviction,” said Mackinac Center Executive Vice President Michael Reitz in a statement issued before the governor signed the bill into law. “Michigan has over 3,100 criminal offenses on its books, many of which are silent on the mental state necessary for conviction. House Bill 4713 would make Michigan a leader by ensuring that the people we are putting behind bars are those that broke the law knowingly or recklessly.”

Under the new law, a criminal offense could only be established if it were proven that the accused person had acted with intent, knowledge or recklessness. Statutes within the vehicle code, the penal code and drug laws will not be affected by the new law, however.

“The more we looked into this problem and realized how many good people it was harming — sometimes in a very significant way — it became apparent that we needed to pass the legislation and get it done quickly,” said Sen. Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, who sponsored related legislation. “For people to have confidence in their government and the rule of law, you can’t afford to let excessive regulation turn everyday good people into accidental criminals.”

Many crimes are defined by regulatory agencies and are largely unknown by common people. One much-cited number is that the average American commits three federal felonies per day, mostly unknowingly.

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.