Vanderbilt Law Review

Article Title

Humpty Dumpty on Mens Rea Standards: A Proposed Methodology for Interpretation


"When I use a word.., it means just what I choose it to mean-neither more nor less.",

This statement by Humpty Dumpty sets forth the argument of this Note: words used to describe mens rea in federal criminal statutes have plain, ordinary meanings. When the United States Supreme Court interprets these statutes, it should do so according to the words' plain meanings. Because the Court has not used this approach in past cases, the law of mens rea on the federal level is confusing and inconsistent.

The Court has tried to repair poorly drafted statutes by interpreting them in various ways to achieve what it thought was the correct result. By applying different interpretation techniques, however, the Court has developed an ad hoc mens rea jurisprudence that confuses people about what mental state is necessary for conviction under federal criminal laws. People thus cannot order their affairs to avoid violating the law. To clarify the law, the United States Congress and the Supreme Court should engage in a law-making dialogue that results in Congress drafting clearer statutes and the Court interpreting those statutes according to the words' plain meanings.

The Supreme Court's mens rea analysis in federal criminal cases is least settled in cases involving the "knowingly" standard. The Court apparently interprets other mens rea standards, such as "willfully," "purposely," and "recklessly," consistently. The Court has more difficulty interpreting "knowingly," because it falls in the middle of the mens rea standard hierarchy. "Willfully," the most stringent standard, implies either a full understanding of both the law and the facts or an understanding of egregious facts that indicate the defendant knew she was doing something wrong. "Recklessly," one of the lowest standards, implies very little thought. "Knowingly," however, indicates a standard somewhere above recklessness and below fully-informed thwarting of the law. Determining exactly what it means to act knowingly appears to be difficult for the Court.