As discussed in part one of this series, strict liability crimes—criminal offenses which do not require the prosecution to prove intent (mens rea)—arose in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in response to urbanization and industrialization. These laws, often referred to as public welfare offenses, were typically directed at the sale of alcohol, foodstuffs, and narcotics, along with pollution and public nuisance offenses. For better or worse, the list of strict liability offenses grew throughout the latter half of the 20th Century, leading judges, lawyers, and legal academics to question not only their fairness, but their constitutionality. Despite calls to curtail the promulgation of strict liability crimes, many states continue to pass them, including Michigan. A number of state legislators have, however, taken steps to pass intent statutes which require the presence of general intent for most crimes, regardless of statutory language. Michigan is not one of them.
In Morrissette vs. United States, 342 U.S. 246 (1952), Justice Robert Jackson, writing for a unanimous Supreme Court, affirmed the longstanding principle of common-law crimes that for an individual to be held guilty, they must have both committed the act (actus reus) and possess the intention or knowledge of wrongdoing that constitutes part of a crime, as opposed to the action or conduct of the accused (mens rea). However, in that case, the Court also recognized a class of public welfare or strict liability offenses that do not require mens rea. In other words, an individual may be convicted for having committed the proscribed act alone, regardless of knowledge or intention.