In explanations and predictions of human action and inaction culpability is a measure of the degree to which an agent, such as a person, can be held morally or legally responsible. Culpability marks the dividing line between moral evil, like murder, for which someone may be held responsible and natural evil, like earthquakes, for which no one can be held responsible.
Modern crimes codes in the United States usually make distinct four degrees of culpability.
Legal definitions are:
(The above has been quoted verbatim from the Pennsylvania Crimes Code That in turn derives from the American Law Institute's Model Penal Code, which is the basis for large portions of the criminal codes in most states. The only difference is that the MPC uses "purposely" instead of "intentionally".)
The first two types of culpability are each a subset of the following. Thus if someone acts purposely, they also act knowingly. If someone acts knowingly, they also act recklessly.
The definitions of specific crimes refer to these degrees to establish the necessary mens rea (mental state) necessary for a person to be guilty of a crime. The stricter the culpability requirements, the harder it is for the prosecution to prove its case.
For instance, the definition of first degree murder (again in PA) is "A criminal homicide constitutes murder of the first degree when it is committed by an intentional killing." Thus to be guilty of murder in the first degree, one must have an explicit goal in one's mind to cause the death of another. On the other hand, reckless endangerment has a much broader requirement: "A person commits a misdemeanor of the second degree if he recklessly engages in conduct which places or may place another person in danger of death or serious bodily injury." Thus to be guilty of this one only needs to be aware of a substantial risk he is putting others in danger of; it does not have to be one's explicit goal to put people in risk. (But, if one's goal is to put others in substantial risk of death or serious bodily injury, this is, of course, sufficient.)
There is one more type of culpability, and that is strict liability. In strict liability crimes, the actor is responsible no matter what his mental state; if the result occurs, the actor is liable. An example is the felony murder rule: if the prosecution proves beyond reasonable doubt that one commits a qualifying felony (see the article) during which death results, one is held strictly liable for murder and the prosecution does not have to prove any of the normal culpability requirements for murder.
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