knowingly | Definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee


Course: Introduction / Criminal Law

Knowingly is a  culpable mental state that requires the actor to be aware of the nature of his or her action; the actor knew what would happen when he or she acted.

In criminal law, a culpable mental state, also known as mens rea, refers to a defendant’s state of mind at the time the crime was committed. The Model Penal Code (MPC), which was developed by the American Law Institute, provides a widely accepted framework for defining the different levels of culpability.

One of the mental states described in the MPC is knowingly. Knowingly is a higher level of culpability than recklessness or negligence. It requires that the defendant be aware of the nature of their action and the potential consequences that may result. Essentially, the actor must know that their conduct is criminal and is aware that the conduct is practically certain to cause a particular result.

For example, in the case of theft, a defendant who knowingly takes someone else’s property is aware that they are committing a crime and knows that they are taking something that does not belong to them. The defendant must also have the intent to deprive the owner of their property permanently. If the defendant took the property by mistake or believed that it belonged to them, they may not be found guilty of theft.

Similarly, if a defendant knowingly causes harm to another person, they are aware that their conduct is criminal and know that their actions will result in harm to the victim. This level of culpability is more severe than the mental state of recklessness, which only requires that the defendant be aware of a substantial and unjustifiable risk of harm.

The element of knowingly is crucial in many criminal offenses. For example, in drug offenses, a defendant must know that they are in possession of a controlled substance or that they are selling drugs. In some jurisdictions, knowledge of the nature of the substance is not required, and a defendant can be convicted of drug offenses even if they did not know the exact substance they possessed or sold.

Furthermore, a defendant’s mental state is often a crucial factor in determining the severity of the crime and the appropriate punishment. For instance, a defendant who knowingly causes harm to another person may face a more severe sentence than a defendant who was only reckless or negligent.

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Last Modified: 07/07/2021


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