Criminal Law Reform and The Persistence of Strict Liability

54 Pages Posted: 13 Mar 2012 Last revised: 8 Nov 2012

See all articles by Darryl K. Brown

Darryl K. Brown

University of Virginia School of Law

Date Written: September 5, 2012


Two reform movements transformed American criminal law in the four decades that began in the late 1960s. Their origins and effects were starkly different, and their conflict meant that, on core choices about the basis for criminal liability, one movement had to win and the other lose. The first movement was the wave of criminal code reform inspired by the American Law Institute’s Model Penal Code (MPC), first published in 1962. The MPC movement sought to increase the role of culpability as a prerequisite for liability by presumptively requiring proof of mens rea for every element of criminal offenses — a policy that rejected longstanding use of strict liability for significant offense elements. The second, which could be called the tough-on-crime movement, became the more significant. This was the transformation of American criminal-justice policy that expanded criminal offenses, enforcement and sentences, resulting in a national incarceration rate that quintupled and became by far the world’s highest.

This Article identifies the twenty-four states that codified the MPC’s culpability rules and then recounts an extensive survey of the case law in those states to assess the reforms’ effect on judicial interpretation of mens rea requirements. It finds that legislative codifications of presumptions for mens rea have had surprisingly little effect on courts that define mens rea requirements when interpreting criminal statutes. It describes the recurrent rationales courts use to impose strict-liability elements in a wide range of crimes notwithstanding statutes that direct presumptions to the contrary. It then offers an explanation for this outcome — a substantial failure of the MPC-inspired revision of criminal codes — that emphasizes the continuing normative appeal of strict liability, the influence of instrumental rationales for punishment, and the limits of the judicial role in an era in which the legislative and executive branches are vastly expanding the reach and severity of criminal punishment.

Keywords: criminal law, strict liability, Model Penal Code, statutory interpretation

Suggested Citation

Brown, Darryl K., Criminal Law Reform and The Persistence of Strict Liability (September 5, 2012). 62 Duke Law Journal 285 , Virginia Public Law and Legal Theory Research Paper No. 2012-21, Available at SSRN:

Darryl K. Brown (Contact Author)

University of Virginia School of Law ( email )

580 Massie Road
Charlottesville, VA 22903
United States

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