Does it really matter if you meant to commit a crime or not?

Maybe. There are certain crimes, like homicide, that are punished more seriously depending on whether the perpetrator acted with malice aforethought. The mens rea, or mental state of the person who committed the crime at the time that they acted, can be pretty important.

However, that’s not particularly an issue when it comes to federal crimes. You can be guilty of a serious federal offense without ever intending to break the law because many federal laws are written without any regard for the mens rea involved in a crime. Actions — not intentions — are all that matter if you break certain federal laws.

Frankly, it doesn’t even matter if the law you break is particularly clear. The federal criminal code is extremely complicated. Some of the laws on the books landed there through special-interest lobbying. Those laws may seem strange — even arcane — but they can be trotted out and used on a whim by a prosecutor determined to make a case.

Take, for example, the case of Joseph Trewasky, who was arrested in Connecticut in the 1950s for serving square (not triangular) pats of margarine to his restaurant customers contrary to federal law. Or, consider the case of Aaron Swartz, who committed suicide in 2011 after the federal government threatened him with 35 years in prison for downloading academic journal files that were housed on computers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) — even though he never apparently intended to do anything wrong with them and likely didn’t even realize that what he was doing was illegal.

The complexity of the federal code, coupled with the fact that it’s your actions and not your intentions that get you into hot water with prosecutors, is the reason that most defense attorneys advise their clients to stay silent when approached by federal authorities regarding an investigation. Then, get legal help. You may not know what you did wrong — but you can bet the government will tell you if they can get you talking.

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