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Michigan's criminal intent requirement may get tightened up

An old maxim says that ignorance of the law is no excuse. Still, it would not sit well with most people in Michigan to wind up arrested and charged with something they did not even suspect was against the law.

This is more possible than readers might realize. One study cited by Michigan Capitol Confidential claims that the average American unwittingly commits three felonies per day.

Under Michigan law some crimes require the perpetrator to be acting intentionally, or else no crime has been committed. But for many other crimes, intent is not a necessary element. This means you could end up in court for something you did accidentally.

This happened to a business owner who expanded his employee parking lot. The expansion encroached on a neighboring wetland, though it was unclear whether the wetland was protected from development. The business owner was found guilty of a crime and ordered to pay $8,500, though he apparently had not meant to violate the wetlands.

Some legislators are trying to change this from happening again. Bills in the Michigan House and Senate seek to change the default standard for criminal intent in the state. If they become the law, the bills would make intent to break the law the default standard, unless a statute directs otherwise.

The House version has already passed unanimously in October. As of Nov. 9, the Senate bill is scheduled to be considered by the Judiciary Committee. It is worth noting that the bills make exceptions for certain parts of the criminal code, including drugs laws, traffic laws and identity theft laws.

It will be interesting to see, if these bills are signed into law, how they will affect criminal defendants’ chances in the courthouse.

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