The rule of strict liability in traffic court

by Sami Azhari on June 24, 2012

Cook County Traffic Court | Illinois Liability

One of the most important rules in criminal cases is that court cannot convict a person of a crime unless the prosecution has proven that the defendant had the requisite mental state. The prosecution must prove that the defendant intended to commit a crime. The Illinois constitution prohibits the prosecution from convicting a person of a crime where his only intent is to engage in innocent conduct. Recently the state’s eavesdropping law was found to be unconstitutional because it criminalized innocent conduct.

The mental state that must be proven in trial is called mens rea. In most cases, a person is guilty of a crime when he committed the act knowingly and intentionally.

But this rule requiring sufficient mental state does not apply to many traffic violations.

When it comes to mens rea, the Illinois vehicle code is the huge exception to the rule. While the vehicle code establishes many criminal offenses and sets the penalties for each, these crimes do not require a mental state as they would under the criminal code. In fact, many crimes under the vehicle code are considered strict liability offenses.

A strict liability offense occurs where a person commits an act which is prohibited by law. It does not matter that the person did not intend to commit the act, or that the results of the act were unexpected. The fact that the act was committed by itself is a crime. It is not a defense that it was an accident. There is no mental state required in a strict liability offense.

One of the best illustrations of a strict liability offense is speeding, 625 ILCS 5/11-601(b). It is not a defense to a speeding ticket to say to the judge, I did not intend to drive that fast, or, I did not know that my vehicle was going so fast. The person would be guilty of speeding if the vehicle was traveling at a rate of speed in excess of the posted limit.

Not even necessity would be a reason for an acquittal. While defendants accused of crimes under the criminal code can assert an affirmative defense such as necessity, the vehicle code does not allow it. Thus, a person who speeds in order to avoid an accident or evade someone who is following them, intending to do them harm, cannot claim necessity. The crime of speeding occurs and there is no defense.

The strict liability rule plays an important role in the most common vehicle code crime, which is driving while license suspended, 625 ILCS 5/6-303. A person who is ticketed for driving while suspended on the first offense faces a Class A misdemeanor. The penalty for this offense can include a conviction and up to one year in jail. The fine may be $2500.

In order to convict a person of driving while suspended, the prosecution does not have to prove a mental state. It is a strict liability offense. They do not have to prove that the defendant knew his or her driving privileges were suspended. If the person drives and is suspended he is guilty.

This issue comes up often because most people do not know that their license has been suspended when they get caught. All too often, a defendant in traffic court tries to explain to the judge that he did not know his license was suspended. This is not a defense. DWLS is a strict liability offense.

It may seem unfair for a person to be convicted of a crime and sentenced to jail when they did not know that his driver’s license was suspended. I can promise you that principles of fairness have almost no value in criminal cases. People are sentenced to jail all the time under circumstances that are unfair. For example, suppose a person’s license is suspended for unpaid parking tickets, and that he has no financial resources to pay off those tickets. He can still be sentenced to jail. The court is not a place to expect to find sympathy.

Strict liability is in all regards the most unsympathetic rule in criminal law. And there is no courtroom in which strict liability is more prevalent than traffic court.

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