Skip to Content
L. Patrick Mulligan & Associates, LLC L. Patrick Mulligan & Associates, LLC
Call Us Today! 937-685-7006

What Are the Degrees of Culpability in a Criminal Case?

When the State pursues a criminal case, the prosecutor must prove that the defendant violated the elements of the alleged offense beyond a reasonable doubt. In many cases, the burden also requires showing that the defendant was in a specific state of mind (their culpability) when engaged in unlawful conduct. Most criminal statutes will specify the degree of culpability for an offense.

These degrees include:

  • Purposely,
  • Knowingly,
  • Recklessly, and
  • Negligently.

If the prosecutor can prove that the defendant was in the mental state indicated in the statute, the individual can be criminally liable and, therefore, found guilty of the offense.

For help challenging the prosecutor’s accusations against you in Dayton, schedule a consultation with L. Patrick Mulligan & Associates, LLC by calling (937) 685-7006 or submitting an online contact form today.

Knowing What Mental State the Prosecutor Must Prove

Many of the crimes listed in the Ohio Revised Code contain at least one element indicating the degree of culpability for the defendant to be found guilty.

Take assault and negligent assault, for example. The text for assault provides that a person commits the offense when they knowingly injure someone else or recklessly cause serious physical harm to someone else. The negligent assault statute states that it is unlawful for a person to negligently, using a deadly weapon, cause physical harm to someone else.

The terms “knowingly,” “recklessly,” and “negligently” are the different degrees of culpability. Ohio also recognizes “purposely” as a criminal mental state.

According to Ohio Revised Code § 2901.20, any new criminal statute added to the Code after March of 2015 must specify culpability as an element of the offense. The requirement does not concern amendments to existing laws.

Still, various statutes in the Revised Code do not indicate criminal culpability. So what must the prosecutor prove in that instance? The prosecutor does not have to prove culpability if the text specifies strict liability. However, if the text does not provide for strict liability or culpability, the mental state attached to the element is “recklessly.”

What Do the Degrees of Criminal Culpability Mean?

We mentioned above that the prosecutor must prove that the defendant acted purposely, knowingly, recklessly, or negligently to obtain a conviction. But it might not be clear what’s involved in each mental state.

Before going into detail about the different degrees, let us first explain criminal culpability. Essentially, the term refers to a person’s state of mind when they allegedly committed a certain act or omission. In other words, is the individual to be blamed for the crime because of their mental state?

The different degrees of culpability are defined as follows:

  • Purposely: This means that the individual intentionally engaged in the conduct or omission. They meant to cause the result. For example, suppose a person gets in an argument with someone. The individual says something along the lines of “I’ll get you to stop talking with my fists” and punches the other person. Their statement, coupled with their actions, suggests that they purposely injured the other person.
  • Knowingly: This means that the defendant was aware of their actions' consequences or that their conduct could constitute a certain act. For example, let’s say someone got mad at another person for taking their parking spot. Angered, the individual walks up to the other person and punches and injures them. To act knowingly differs from acting purposely because the intent was not to cause the injury. Instead, the person engaged in conduct knowing that it could cause harm to someone else. When acting with knowledge is an element of an offense, the prosecutor may obtain a conviction if they prove instead that the defendant acted purposely.
  • Recklessly: This means that the defendant was or should have been aware of the unjustifiable risks of their actions, yet they were indifferent to the harm they could cause and engaged in the conduct anyway. To illustrate what it means to act recklessly, suppose someone is in a crowded area swinging a bat. Their intent isn’t to hurt anyone, but they know that if they hit a person with the bat, they’ll likely cause injury. When “recklessly” is specified in a statute, the prosecutor may also prove criminal culpability by showing that the defendant acted purposely or knowingly.
  • Negligently: This means that a person engages in actions that could put others at risk. However, they are unaware of the consequences, even though a reasonable person would have known what could happen. In other words, negligence is when someone fails to exercise the same care a reasonable person would have in similar circumstances. For example, a person and their friend are in an empty building. The individual has a gun and decides to shoot it at a wall, not realizing that the bullet might ricochet. The bullet does bounce off the wall, injuring the friend. Prosecutors can also prove crimes specifying negligence as an element of mental culpability by showing that the defendant acted knowingly, recklessly, or purposely.

Reach Out to an Attorney for Help with Your Case

Prosecutors must present various pieces of evidence to prove that a defendant had a specific state of mind when engaging in certain conduct. Still, their interpretation of the facts may not represent the individual's thinking when they acted. Thus, defenses may be available to challenge the prosecutor’s claims.

If you have been charged with a crime in Dayton, hire a criminal defense attorney to build your case. Contact L. Patrick Mulligan & Associates, LLC at (937) 685-7006 today.