Note: Larry is not and attorney and nothing here is legal advice. If you have any questions about legal matters, please seek out a licensed lawyer in your area.
Can you go to jail if you accidentally commit a crime?
What if no one is injured? And what if there is no property damage? What if there are absolutely no consequences whatsoever to what you have done? If you accidentally commit a crime, can you still go to jail?
If you’re working on a case and you have to establish that the crime was committed, generally speaking, you have to establish two things.
First you have to establish that the crime was committed. This means you must establish the elements of the crime.
For example, on a Trespassing case, if the elements of the crime described in the law are that 1. The property has to be clearly posted and 2. That the person was on the property, that means you have to establish that those two things occurred. To do this you might go out and take pictures showing that the sign is clearly posted and not overgrown by vegitation or otherwise blocked from view. To establish that the person was actually on the property you may have to collect video form the surveilllnce cameras.
The second thing you (generally) have to establish when you are trying to put together proof of a crime is you have to prove intent – that the person intended to commit a crime. And that is very, very important. There are times when a person can do something that establishes the elements of the crime but there is no intent to commit the crime!
A classic real-world example is a woman in a store shopping for a purse. She’s looking at some purses. She puts one over her shoulder. Checks it in the mirror, likes it, and decides she wants to buy it. Then she continues shopping. She picks up some other items. As she checks out, she buys the other items and completely forgets that the purse is over her shoulder. After all, it feels normal because this is how she normally carries a purse. She is not trying to hide it from the cashier and, after paying for the other items, she walks out of the store without paying for the purse.
Was a crime committed? No, a crime was not committed because she had no intent to commit theft. She was not trying to steal. She just accidentally walked out with this thing. So, you can see that it’s not a theft and if you were to try to prosecute that woman for theft, you would have to prove that she intended to steal it and I just don’t think you are going to in this scenario.
There is an exception when you do not have to prove intent and these exceptions are called Strict Liability laws. A Strict Liability law means that if you commit the action, you have committed the crime. Whether you intend to or not, you are still guilty.
A classic example in a lot of jurisdictions is serving alcohol to an underage person. You may be the most diligent bartender in the world. You may be very, very opposed to underage people drinking. You may check all the IDs. But if you serve an underage person alcohol, even by accident, you have committed a crime of serving alcohol to an underage person.
Maybe you thought of the wrong year while you were figuring out the person’s age. Maybe the ID doesn’t actually belong to the person. Maybe you got busy because there’s not enough bartenders on duty. If you served this person alcohol, you committed a crime.
I know of one case in particular where a bartender did exactly that. She never wanted to serve an underage person but she got tricked.
It was the police sting operation. Moreover, the underage person never even drank the alcohol but, he did purchase the alcohol underage and the bartender was found guilty.
Can you go to jail for this? Absolutely!
In fact, there are some judges that will give you a weekend in county lock up for serving alcohol to an underage person regardless of the circumstances!
So there is just one example where there was no intent to commit a crime but the action itself did cause the person to commit a crime and you can still go to jail!
If you want to join the conversation, please comment on Strict Liability laws you know about or a case you found interesting.