In many criminal cases, the prosecution, in order to obtain a conviction, must show that a defendant possessed a certain mental state when committing the alleged offense. This mental state is often referred to as "mens rea." For example, many statutes state that a defendant must have "willfully" committed the offense in order to be found guilty. But what is a "willful" act?
A willful act is simply one that is intentionally carried out. Therefore, if an individual accesses a protected federal computer and knows that he does so intentionally to access sensitive information, then he may be charged, and perhaps even found guilty, of that crime.
However, sometimes an individual takes actions that qualify as a crime under a statute, but he or she has mistaken a fact that led them to unknowingly commit a crime. For example, if an individual transports marijuana across state lines but truly did not know that the substance was a narcotic, then he or she may not possess the mens rea required to be convicted. It is important to note, however, that ignorance of the law is never an excuse for a crime.
Some crimes do not require the prosecution to show a state of mind, as committing the act itself is enough to be found guilty of the crime. This shows just how complicated mens rea issues can be, and determining when they apply can be tricky.
Those who face federal crime allegations have a lot to contend with. A conviction can be seriously damaging to their life, and might even strip them of their freedom. Therefore, those dealing with federal charges should do everything they can to ensure they know the law and how best to protect themselves.
Source: FindLaw, "Mens Rea - A Defendant's Mental State," accessed on Jan. 24, 2015