Not looking at instances of false accusations or innocent people being convicted of crimes, in some cases, it is possible you could be penalized for a crime you didn’t physically commit. Tennessee law has several criminal responsibility statues that can hold a person liable if they assist someone else with the commission of a crime.
That description broadly defines criminal responsibility, but we’ll dive deeper into the specifics of a few of these laws later. First, we’ll discuss mens rea.
What Is Mens Rea?
Translated from Latin, mens rea means a “guilty mind,” and is concerned with an offender’s mental state when engaging in conduct that violates the law. Many statutes in The Tennessee Code define acts considered illegal and the mental state of the person that makes their behavior an offense.
For instance, aggravated assault is defined in Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-13-102 as committing assault and:
- Causing serious bodily injury to someone else;
- Causing the death of another;
- Using or displaying a deadly weapon; or
- Strangling or attempting to strangle the other person
The mens rea, or culpable state of mind, for aggravated assault include that the person acted:
- Knowingly, or
Generally, to prove guilt in a case, the prosecutor must show that the defendant had the intent to carry out an act – a culpable state of mind. For aggravated assault, the prosecutor must show that the accused knew their conduct would have a particular result, meant to carry out the act, and/or engaged in the act with disregard to the risk it could pose to others.
For example, Ron was meeting with Sally for a drug sale. Sally decided she didn’t want to purchase the substance after all, which made Ron mad. Wanting to get back at her for making him lose out on money, he punched her as she was leaving, which caused her to suffer a brain bleed (a serious medical condition). Because he intended to cause harm, Ron could be convicted of aggravated assault.
Understanding the elements of a crime and the mental states that make certain behaviors criminal acts, you may be wondering how you could be punished for something like aggravated assault if you didn’t intend to or actually carried out the offense. For instance, what if June was at the meeting with Ron and Sally, and she told Ron to get back at Sally, but she wasn’t the one who threw the punch? June could still be charged with an offense. The reason lies in Tennessee's criminal responsibility laws.
What Is Criminal Responsibility?
Before delving into the legal definitions of criminal responsibility, we’ll first look at Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-11-401, parties to offenses.
This statute states that a person is a party to an offense if they:
- Committed the crime by their own actions, and/or
- Were criminally responsible for the conduct of someone else
Depending on the circumstances, whether a person actually carried out the offense or assisted with it, they could be charged with committing the crime.
There are several different criminal responsibility statutes, but we’ll focus on two: Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-11-402 and § 39-11-403.
First, under Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-11-402, a person is criminally responsible for the conduct of another if they have:
- The mental state to carry out an offense and cause an innocent or irresponsible person to actually engage in the conduct,
- The intent to benefit from an offense or assist another person in actually committing it, or
- A duty to stop the offense from happening, but, because they seek to benefit from it or have the intent to assist with it, do not stop the crime
According to Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-11-403, a person is criminally responsible for the commission of a felony if they know someone else is going to commit a crime and provide substantial assistance for the act to be carried out. Returning to the example of Ron, Sally, and June, June could be charged with a crime because she helped Ron commit aggravated assault.
When a person is criminally responsible for committing a felony, they could be charged with the class below the crime they helped commit. For instance, in the aggravated assault example given earlier, Ron could be charged with a Class C felony, and June with a Class D.
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