What are Strict Liability Crimes?What is Strict Liability?

In typical lawyerly fashion, as I was driving behind a toxic chemicals hauling truck the other day, I harkened back to my law school days, and began to daydream about ultrahazardous activities, and the accompanying strict liability standards. It struck me that it is perhaps uncommon to think in these terms when driving along the freeway, but also that many people might not be aware of these legal creations.

Ultrahazardous activities are those activities that are considered so dangerous, that they are almost certain to result in some sort of disastrous consequence. Think of transporting highly toxic chemicals or flammable gasses, exploding dynamite, etc. Because these activities are so obviously risky, the damages they can cause are generally held to a strict liability standard, meaning that if an accident happens, the company is probably liable, regardless of intent.

Strict liability for ultrahazardous activities is a remnant of Tort, or civil, rather than Criminal Law. Strict liability, however, does exist for several different types of crimes.

For example:

  • Statutory Rape-- many, if not all, statutory rape offenses are strict liability crimes. This means that even if a person believed that the victim was of age, even if they attempted to externally verify their age (such as by checking a driver's license), they are still guilty of the crime if they engage in an illegal sexual act with the minor. The term statutory in the offense's title hints at the fact that the crime is considered more like a regulatory infraction (see below), where proof of intent is not required.
  • Parking violations-- these offenses, along with other regulatory offenses or infractions, usually do not require an additional element of proving intent. If the person is in violation of the rule, they are "guilty." E.g. if a police officer sees a cellphone in your hand, you are in violation of the no handheld law.
  • Manslaughter-- this is generally the type of murder whereby a person's negligence leads to the death of another. Therefore, it's the completion of the negligent actions that satisfies the violation,  eventhough the person did not intend to kill the victim.
And most importantly, who cares? Well, strict liability means that the liability is strict. Put another way, you are liable whether or not you intended to commit a crime. This is in stark contrast to situations where you may be able to escape liability by arguing a mistake of fact (but not mistake of law), when accused of a crime. For example, if you mistakenly believed that a person was trying to kill you (mistake of fact, since they were not, in fact, attempting to do so), but because of objectively verifiable reasons, such as external conduct (which the jury accepts), you acted justifiably (given the facts as you believed them to be), then you can potentially get off because you would not be liable if the facts were as you believed them to be.
--As an aside, you can almost never escape liability for a mistake of law. This includes situations such as, "I didn't know you can't use a cellphone while driving." "I didn't know the speed limit is only 15 mph in a painting zone." "I didn't know that black bears were out of season for local hunting regulation purposes." Mistake of LAW errors are often meaningless in terms of a defense.--
The good news is that these strict liability offenses are generally types of conduct that you can avoid.
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