Knowledge Essay

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Ordinarily, to be criminally culpable the actor must have volitionally committed the criminal act (actus reus), and must have done so with the requisite criminal state of mind (mens rea). In other words, the criminal law ordinarily does not criminally punish acts that are uncontrollable (such as an epileptic striking someone during a seizure), or accidental (such as inadvertently hitting another car in a parking lot). Criminal law also punishes equivalent harm more seriously if the harm was committed purposely than if the harm was committed recklessly. Those concepts are grounded in fairness, that is, that criminal consequences should be commensurate with both the degree of harm and the actor’s relative criminal culpability.

The Model Penal Code and Its Levels of Criminal Intent

Those fairness concepts were codified by the American Law Institute (ALI) in 1962 in the ALI’s official draft of its Model Penal Code (MPC). The Model Penal Code is just that, a model. Unless enacted into law in a particular state, the MPC is merely advisory. But upon the creation of the Model Penal Code, it quickly became the gold standard, and now most states have adopted Model Penal Code concepts, principles, and provisions in whole or in substantial part. The Model Penal Code’s conceptions of intent will illuminate the meaning of “knowledge” in the criminal law. The highest (most serious) level of criminal intent under the MPC is “purpose,” achieved when the actor’s conscious objective or purpose in committing the act is to cause the harm.

Under the MPC, if the actor commits the criminal act with the purpose of causing the harm, that actor acted with purpose. As one example, a murderer acts purposely when he aims a gun at the victim and fires the weapon with the purpose of killing the victim. Purpose is analogous to “intent” in many state criminal codes.

The slightly less serious level of criminal intent within the MPC is “knowledge,” achieved when the actor is aware of the circumstances and is practically certain the harm will result from his criminal act. As one example, if a person puts a bomb aboard a plane with purpose of killing the pilot, he acted purposefully with respect to killing the pilot, but acted knowingly with respect to all the others on the plane, since he was practically certain they all would be killed by his criminal act. In the criminal law, the “knowledge” requirement may appear in many forms, including knowledge, knowing, knowingly, and with knowledge, among other variations.

The third level of criminal intent within the MPC is “recklessness,” achieved when the actor consciously disregards a substantial and unjustifiable risk in a way that is a gross deviation from the standard of conduct a law-abiding person would display in the same situation.

The lowest level of criminal intent within the MPC is “negligence,” commonly referred to as criminal negligence. This is similar to recklessness but is less criminal because the negligent actor should have known of the substantial and unjustifiable risk the actor disregarded, but the reckless actor consciously disregarded that risk.

Examples of Homicide Crimes at Each Level of Mens Rea

Homicide is a large category of offenses resulting in the death of a human being, and homicide includes crimes at all four levels of MPC mens rea. Understanding the differences among these homicide crimes will help one understand the mens rea concepts. Premeditated murder, which, depending on the jurisdiction, might be called first degree murder or capital murder, falls squarely within the “purposely” category: First-degree murder is the purposeful and premeditated killing of another human being. That is obviously among the most serious of all offenses.

Felony murder is a combination of purposely and knowingly: Felony murder is the unintentional killing of another human being while committing a dangerous felony, knowing that others may be killed in the course of committing that underlying dangerous felony. In most jurisdictions, felony murder is a lower-level offense than first degree murder.

Vehicular homicide requires recklessness, that is, when a motor vehicle operator drives recklessly, without due regard for others’ safety, and unintentionally causes a death. That is a lesser offense still.

Finally, negligent homicide occurs when the actor unintentionally but negligently causes the death of another human being. As the criminal mental state, or mens rea, goes from purposely down to negligently, the severity of the offense and the sentence the offender faces are commensurately reduced.

“Knowledge” in Context: Two Examples

To understand how “knowledge” fits into the criminal law, this essay will examine just two crimes, the first a crime defined by the MPC and the second a crime of the same name, but as defined in the Minnesota Criminal Code. Under the MPC, the crime of false imprisonment is committed when an actor “knowingly restrains another unlawfully so as to interfere substantially with his liberty.” Therefore, if the actor restrained the victim knowingly, the “knowledge” element of false imprisonment has been met. On the other hand, if the actor only recklessly or negligently restrained the victim, say by locking the building’s only exit not knowing the victim was inside, the “knowledge” element of MPC false imprisonment has not been met.

Compare that to the role “knowledge” plays in Minnesota’s crime of false imprisonment. Under Minnesota law, an actor is guilty of false imprisonment if that actor, knowingly lacking lawful authority to do so, intentionally confines or restrains any person without that person’s consent. Note that under the MPC, the act of restraining the victim must have been committed at least knowingly to be criminal. But under Minnesota law, the restraint must be intentional (essentially, purposeful), but the actor must have acted while knowing the actor had no lawful authority to restrain the victim.

Criminal law is predominately a creature of state law, and each state is essentially free to enact a criminal code that reflects the wishes of that state’s citizens. To understand how the “knowledge” concept is applied in one state requires a careful reading of that state’s criminal code. Finally, although each state’s criminal code can be different from every other, all criminal codes, to be constitutional, must be clear, specific, and just.

Strict Liability Crimes

Much as one may prefer to believe that criminal law only penalizes purposeful, knowing, reckless, or negligent acts, strict liability crimes require no particular mens rea or criminal mental state at all. The classic example is speeding in a motor vehicle. Under California law, for example, speeding is driving in excess of the posted speed limit. The statute includes no particular mens rea element. The driver need not know the speed limit, and need not know that limit was posted. The driver need never have seen any speed limit sign. Furthermore, the driver need not have the purpose of speeding, or even know whether he or she was speeding. For that matter, even if the driver’s vehicle speedometer was broken or functioning improperly, a driver exceeding the posted limit is still speeding because speeding has no mens rea requirement. Ordinarily, these strict liability crimes are lesser crimes, regulatory in nature, and not likely to hold the offender to substantial scorn or serious consequences, including imprisonment. Because strict liability offenses do not carry the same weight or severity as greater crimes, as an expedient no mens rea element is required.

The Bottom Line

At its core, the criminal law must make sense and must “feel” right, fair, and just. Toward that end, crimes must be defined to ensure that more serious crimes and more culpable criminal actors are treated more seriously with more substantial criminal consequences. That is where the concepts of mens rea, intent, purpose, and knowledge come in. Purpose, knowledge and the other mens rea elements help criminal code drafters differentiate more serious crimes from less serious ones. It is not merely a semantic venture. All else being equal, causing a criminal harm purposely is more serious than causing that same harm only knowingly; causing that same harm recklessly is even less serious in the criminal law, and causing the same harm merely negligently is less serious still. Grading crimes by harm caused combined with the level of the actor’s criminal culpability or mens rea fairly arrays consequences based on the severity of the harm caused, and the actor’s level of criminal intent.


  1. Dubber, Markus D. Criminal Law: Model Penal Code. New York: Foundation Press, 2002.
  2. Edwards, J. “The Criminal Degrees of Knowledge.” Modern Law Review, v.17 (1954). http://online (Accessed September 2013).
  3. Simons, Kenneth W. “Should the Model Penal Code’s Mens Rea Provisions be Amended?” Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law, v.1 (2003).

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