Strict Liability Crimes

Created by FindLaw's team of legal writers and editors.

You own a liquor store and are diligent about checking ID before selling alcohol to individuals who look younger than 21. But a customer comes in who looks old enough and you check their ID, which confirms that they're of legal drinking age. Unfortunately, it's a very good fake ID and a police officer who happens to be in the store sees you sell the customer the alcohol. While you had no intention of selling alcohol to an underage person, you may still be charged if your state classifies the selling of alcohol to a minor as a strict liability crime.

Read on to understand how strict liability compares in criminal vs. civil cases, to learn how it differs from "intent" crimes, and to see some common examples of strict liability crimes.

Comparing Strict Liability in Civil vs. Criminal Cases

If and when you hear the term "strict liability" it's usually in the context of civil cases. More specifically, strict liability comes into play in product liability cases or cases involving animal bites. In civil cases, strict liability claims mean that the plaintiff doesn't have to prove that the defendant acted in a careless manner. For example, if a jurisdiction follows a strict liability theory for dog bites, the dog owner will be financially liable for dog bite injuries regardless of how careful they were with their dog.

Strict Liability vs. "Intent" Crimes

Crimes can be divided into a variety of categories, based on the mental state required of the offender. More specifically, crimes can be divided into three categories:

  • General intent: these crimes require that a defendant intended to perform a particular act, as opposed to intending a certain result. A DUI, for example, is a general intent crime because a driver doesn't have to intend to drive drunk, they just have to be under the influence while driving -- but they had the intent to drink alcohol before doing so.
  • Specific intent: these crimes require that a defendant had the specific intent of committing the particular criminal acts that constitute a crime. A prime example of a specific intent crime is first-degree murder.
  • Strict liability: as previously mentioned, these crimes don't require any intent, or often knowledge, on the part of the offender.

The category that a crime falls into is important because it affects the elements that must be established to convict a person of committing a particular crime. In other words, the prosecutor must prove that the defendant fulfilled all elements of the crime, including the required mental state.

Strict Liability Crime Examples

The most common example of a strict liability crime is statutory rape. This type of rape occurs when a person engages in sexual activity with an individual who hasn't reached the "age of consent." Statutory rape is considered a strict liability crime because most states don't require the defendant to intend, or know, that they were engaging in sexual relations with a person under the age of consent.

Most traffic violations are also classified as strict liability crimes. For example, a driver can get a speeding ticket whether or not they intended to, or were even aware that they were speeding. Another example of a traffic offense that doesn't require intent is an overdue parking meter.

Have Specific Questions About Strict Liability Crimes? Ask a Local Attorney

In order to be convicted of a crime, the prosecution must prove all the elements in the criminal statute beyond a reasonable doubt. The best way to ensure that the prosecution meets its heavy burden, or to argue that it hasn't done so, is to have a legal professional on your side. To learn more about the elements of the crime you've been charged with, speak with a skilled criminal defense attorney near you today.

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