Model Penal Code and Criminal Culpability

blogged previously here and here about the mens rea element in crimes‎. Those posts summarized issues taken up by legal scholars and policymakers. This post will look at how statutory reform has addressed and resolved these issues.

Model Penal Code

model penal code, mpc, culpability provisions, purpose, knowledge, recklessness, negligence, criminal law, new jersey, criminal defense lawyerOf the many advances in the law contributed by the drafters of the Model Penal Code [“MPC”], none ‎appears to be of greater immediate or long-term significance than that in the area of culpability.1

For centuries, the approach to mental components of crimes had been a quagmire of legal ‎refuse, obscured by a thin surface of general terminology denoting wrongfulness…2

While retaining the capacity to reflect the moral values of society, the Code has promoted ‎clearer, more objective thinking about mental elements of offenses. It has also promoted clearer ‎thinking about defenses, presumptions, and several other concepts related to the mental elements…3

Out With The Old…

The MPC got rid of the moral blameworthiness of general intent. Additionally, it did away with the ill-defined ‎distinctions within specific intent. Furthermore, MPC § 2.02 replaced these concepts with four ‎carefully defined terms for mental culpability: purpose, knowledge, recklessness, and negligence.

…But Only The Bathwater

The MPC adopted the common law “elemental” approach to defining crimes. Based on specific intent statutes, this accomplished two far-reaching goals. Indeed, it clarified the material elements of offenses that prosecutors bear the burden ‎of proving at trial. Additionally, it provided a clear guide of justifications and excuses for accused ‎parties to raise as defenses.

Criminal Culpability in the MPC

The Model Penal Code identifies four different culpable states of mind. Additionally, the MPC ‎associates them with the material elements of conduct, results, or attendant ‎circumstances.4


A person acts purposely if the person’s conscious object is either ‎‎to engage in the proscribed conduct or to cause the proscribed result. Additionally, he must be aware of, ‎believe, or hope for the existence of the attendant circumstances defined in the crime.‎5


A person acts knowingly if he is aware either that his conduct is of the nature ‎proscribed or that the attendant circumstance defined by the crime exists. Additionally, he must be aware ‎to a virtual certainty that his conduct will cause the result proscribed.‎6


A person acts recklessly with respect to a material element of an offense when he consciously disregards a substantial and unjustifiable risk that the material element exists or will result from his conduct. The disregard of this risk, however, must involve a gross deviation from the standard of ‎conduct that a law-abiding person would observe in the actor’s situation.‎7


A ‎person acts negligently when he should be aware a substantial and unjustifiable risk exists or ‎will result from his conduct. Additionally, the actor’s failure to perceive this risk must involve a gross deviation ‎from the standard of care that a reasonable person would observe in the actor’s situation.‎8

Additional MPC Provisions

When the statute does not expressly associate culpability with a material ‎element, the MPC requires proof of recklessness.‎9 Additionally, the association of culpability with a material element applies to each subsequent material ‎element unless expressly stated otherwise.‎10

The statute provides the minimum culpability in ‎order to establish guilt. But a person who has acted with greater culpability can be found guilty of the lesser included ‎offense.11

A person acts purposely only when acting either with an actual or conditional ‎purpose.12 A person acts knowingly only when the actor is aware of a high probability of the ‎existence of a material element, unless he actually believes the material element does not exist.13

A statutory requirement of willfulness is the same as the requirement to act knowingly.‎14

Proof ‎of knowledge, recklessness, or negligence by the actor as to either the actual statutory ‎proscription of the conduct, or the material elements of any statutorily proscribed conduct, is ‎generally not required, unless expressly stated otherwise in the statute defining the offense.‎15


1 Ronald ‎L. Gainer, The Culpability Provisions of the Model Penal Code, 19 Rutgers L.J. 575, 575 ‎‎(1987-1988).‎

2 Id.

3 Id.

4 MPC § 2.02(1) (1962).‎

5 MPC § 2.02(2)(a) (1962).

6 MPC § 2.02(2)(b) (1962).‎

7MPC § 2.02(2)(c) (1962).‎

8 MPC § 2.02(2)(d) (1962).‎

9 MPC § 2.02(3) (1962).‎

10 MPC § 2.02(4) (1962).‎

11 MPC § 2.02(5) (1962).

12 MPC § 2.02(6) (1962).

13 MPC § 2.02(7) (1962).

14 MPC § 2.02(8) (1962).‎

15 MPC § 2.02(9) (1962).‎

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