In the criminal justice system, almost all crimes require both a “bad act” and a “guilty mind.” You might have heard the Latin terms for these—“actus reas” and “mens rea”—on Law & Order. However, in traffic court, the rule of strict liability applies instead.
Under the rule of strict liability, the crime you are accused of committing does not require intent. In other words, you can be found guilty whether or not you intended to commit the offense or not (as long as the prosecutor shows enough proof that you actually committed the offense).
Think about it: when was the last time a judge dismissed your NY speeding ticket because you told him, “Your Honor, I did not intend to be speeding”? Never; and that is because a conviction for speeding only requires you to be speeding, not to have the intent to speed.
In essence, there is no mental state required for a run-of-the-mill traffic violation. Simply breaking the law (innocently or willfully) is enough to get a ticket and be convicted in traffic court.
However, this is very different from most crimes. Intent is usually the crucial component that turns an innocent fire one negligently made into arson; a practical joke that ends badly into homicide; and accidentally walking out of a store holding an item you never put back into larceny.
When you get a ticket and show up to court, neither the prosecutor nor the judge will be interested in hearing that you did not know you were breaking the law or did not mean to break the law. Those are simply not defenses to a strict liability crime.
Similarly, in most criminal settings a “necessity” defense is grounds for a dismissal of the charges. However, not even a “necessity” defense works with most traffic tickets. For instance, if you tell the judge that you were speeding in order to avoid an accident—although it might help slightly in plea negotiations—that alone is not going to get you out of the ticket.
Most importantly, for drivers ticketed for Aggravated Unlicensed Operation (AUO) in New York, even if you are completely unaware of the fact that your license was suspended and had no intent to drive on a suspended license, you can be convicted.
Ultimately, the rule of strict liability in traffic court may seem harsh and unfair, but it is a rule every driver should be aware of before setting out on the open road.