Let’s imagine a scenario. You’re a guy, a senior in high school. You’ve just turned eighteen. At a party, you meet a girl who seems perfect for the casual night you’re looking for—attractive, interesting, and interested in you. She tells you she’s seventeen, and is in the grade below you. You have no reason not to believe her—after all, she’s at a party with a bunch of other people your age, and she certainly looks seventeen, if not older. She ends up coming home with you.
Now imagine that afterwards, you discover that this girl is actually fourteen. In Tennessee (and in many other states) you have actually committed statutory rape, a strict liability crime. That means that if this goes to court, it won’t matter how old you thought she was. It won’t matter that you had no way of knowing she was fourteen, or that she lied to you, or that you are not the first boy she’s done this with. It won’t matter that you’re both in high school, and it certainly won’t matter that it was completely consensual. You will still face up to six years of jail time—and at least one—and you will have to register as a sex offender.
The problem with a strict liability approach to felony crimes, such as statutory rape, is that people who genuinely had no intentions of harm—and were possibly even fooled into their crime, such as the case of our unfortunate example character—find their lives turned upside down. They spend years in jail, deprived of even basic freedoms and surrounded by legitimate criminals. Even after their release, they must struggle with the stigma associated with a felony crime, preventing them from finding jobs or even places to live. The effects on their lives are inescapable.
Some people argue for strict liability as the best way to hold the truly guilty accountable. After all, it would be easy for a guilty man to claim ignorance. However, in the words of William Blackstone, “better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.” If I were the person in our earlier scenario, I would rather not be this kind of sacrifice, an innocent chosen to suffer so that the guilty do not escape punishment. I would take little comfort in knowing that if I had actually been guilty and my defense had been a lie, I would have been justly punished.
Strict liability treats very different levels of intent as if they were the same, and for that reason I cannot support its application in the case of felony crimes. Felony crimes require a level of investigation that cannot stop at whether or not the action in question occurred; intent should also be considered when determining guilt. The consequences for the accused are too great not to.