According to President Obama, Hillary Clinton deserves legal protections that more obviously innocent everyday Americans do not.
During a Fox News Sunday interview on April 10, the president defended Clinton’s dangerous mishandling of classified information by assuring viewers that “she would never intentionally put America in any kind of Jeopardy.” This is not much comfort for the lives that might have been put in danger through her use of an unsecure home-brew email server.
The interesting part of that quote is his use of the word “intentionally.” The reality is that he has a perfectly valid point, and in fact a person’s intentions have been an integral part of our common law understanding of crime for centuries. In legal terms, this is known as “mens rea,” or guilty mind.
Intent serves the important role of making sure a person does not go to jail over an accident. This makes it one of 2 main elements of most crimes: 1) did the accused person commit the act and 2) did they mean to do it?
Then, depending on the level of intent that legislators decided was appropriate for the crime in question, prosecutors will then need to prove the standard set in the statute: such as whether the individual knew what they were doing was a crime, of if they merely intended to do harm.
But what happens when there is no intent standard specified in the crime? Moreover, what happens when more and more criminal regulations get promulgated by an over-zealous bureaucracy that do not need to include an intent requirement?
Florida fisherman John Yates found out when he was charged with an obscure crime under a financial regulatory law that resulted in him going all the way to the Supreme Court and even losing his business. His crime? Getting rid of 3 fish he should not have caught.
It is too bad President Obama did not weigh in on his case as well. Perhaps a person needs to put U.S. security at risk by mishandling classified information first.
Since there are over 5,000 criminal laws in the books, Americans should wonder if they are expected to know all the laws to avoid breaking any of them. Fortunately, there are simple bipartisan ways to start fixing the problem. Currently, two bills in Congress are designed to address the problem. In the House, the Criminal Code Improvement Act introduced by Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) and co-sponsored by both John Conyers (D-MI) and Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-Texas) offers a simple solution: where there is no intent standard provided, a low default standard would be added for the courts to use.
This legislation is bi-partisan and has wide support from leadership—both Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) and Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) made it an integral part of their criminal justice reform platform. Even the ACLU has helped to push default intent in Michigan.
Unfortunately, the administration is not eager to help. Going so far as to claim that these modest reforms would open the doors to everything from environmental devastation to the release of rapists, terrorists, and murderers (all crimes that already have intent standards and would therefore be unaffected by any of the reforms).
Obama should stop defending the nation’s whitest collar and side with actually innocent Americans.