Actus Reus, Mens Rea, Mistake of Fact, and Mistake of Law
write a 5–7 page paper that addresses the concepts of actus reus, mens rea, mistake of fact, and mistake of law based on the following hypothetical. Pretend that you are the defendant’s attorney and put forth as many arguments as possible as to why your client should not be prosecuted. When you have completed your defense, turn the tables and explain the weaknesses in the defendant’s positions. Hypothetical: Johnny Juneau never made much of his life. He was a 57-year-old with a good heart, a kind demeanor, but a very misguided view of life. He lived alone in a shack in the woods, and, frankly, his friends all thought he was retarded. Johnny had not held a job since 1978, when he was fired as a waiter after he rigged the oven to shoot 12-foot flames. “I was just trying to be helpful,” he said, believing that the powerful oven would make the restaurant more efficient. Instead, it burned down four city blocks and permanently singed away the mayor’s trademark handlebar mustache. One day, Johnny loaded his 40-year-old truck (it had only 7,000 miles on it) and took a trip to Gatorville, the nearest town. Johnny’s visits to Gatorville were always exciting for the residents because they never knew what Johnny would do. On this day, Johnny wanted to barter with the townspeople. He planned to trade the swamp creatures he caught for gas and beer. Johnny pulled up to the local gas station. On his last trip, in 2001, gas was $1.40 per gallon. Today, it was $4.42 per gallon. Johnny glanced at the sign, but he didn’t comprehend the price. “That ain’t right,” he muttered. “I need to fix that for them.” Johnny borrowed a ladder from the house next door and marked the “4” on the sign as a “1," making the price $1.42. “Gas is expensive,” he said to himself. “It’s up 2 cents from last time.” As Johnny climbed down the ladder, unbeknownst to him, the ladder touched an uninsulated part of the gas store’s sign and became electrified. There was no way Johnny could have known that would happen. Johnny walked into the store and offered to barter six nutria (a small marsh rodent) for six gallons of gas. The last time Johnny was in town, nutria were worth about $2 per pound. However, the government recently discovered that their meat contains magical properties and regulated them as an endangered species. Even possessing a nutria is a capital offense. “Mon dieu, John,” the store keeper gasped. “You can’t bring those in here! I’m calling the cops!” Indeed, the police showed up and arrested John. As John was being put in the squad car, the neighbor showed up and demanded, “Why is my ladder here?” Johnny answered, “I just borrowed it. You can have it back.” The neighbor went to take the ladder and was electrocuted. Before the police took Johnny away, the deputy got gas, believing that it was on sale for $1.42 per gallon. She refused to pay the difference between the price Johnny put on the sign and the real price. This made the shop keeper angry. “Johnny, you gave away my gas! That’s theft!” Johnny is being charged with the possession of the nutria, theft of the gas, and the murder of the neighbor. Possession of the nutria is a strict liability crime, and each of the other two crimes requires mens rea. Analyze these crimes in terms of their actus reus, mens rea, and any mistake of fact or law defenses. Do not worry about the individual elements of the crimes at this time—only these four general concepts. Defend Johnny using these concepts. Using just the information that you have, what arguments would you make in favor of prosecuting Johnny? How would you resolve these three charges if you were the judge? Is Johnny the sort of person that society should want to prosecute for his actions, or is he simply a hapless victim himself? How does your opinion change if you are the neighbor or the gas station owner?