52 RI Bar J., No. 4, Pg. 19 (January, 2004). The Model Penal Code and Rhode Island: A Primer.


Rhode Island Bar Journal

Volume 52.

52 RI Bar J., No. 4, Pg. 19 (January, 2004).

The Model Penal Code and Rhode Island: A Primer

The Model Penal Code and Rhode Island: A PrimerERNEST G. MAYO, ESQ.Ernest G. Mayo is a Professor of Legal Studies at Johnson & Wales University and Judge of the Warren Municipal Court.I. IntroductionSince the official draft of the Model Penal Code (MPC) (fn1) was promulgated by the American Law Institute (ALI) in 1962, it has been used by thirty-four states to greater or lesser degree as a guide in the revision of their respective criminal codes. (fn2) The MPC has also become a standard and substantial part of the academic study of American criminal law. In the absence of a uniform criminal code shared by all of the states, the MPC has effectively become the de facto general criminal law of the land, providing a common base for law instruction, judicial interpretation, and scholarly discourse. (fn3) Even in jurisdictions which have not made legislative changes in reliance on the MPC, it has nonetheless been influential with the judiciary. Rhode Island is not one of the thirty-four states which have legislatively revised its criminal code on the MPC model. (fn4) However, the Rhode Island judiciary has turned to the MPC on several occasions as a source for both interpretative guidance and new law. (fn5)

The MPC's impact in the State of Rhode Island is evident in the Rhode Island Supreme Court cases decided over the last four decades. A review of the Rhode Island case law, recalling that the state legislature has not used the MPC as a tool to revise the criminal code, illustrates the influence of the MPC on the formulation of judicial opinions which have reshaped the interpretation of statutory language and redefined the common law. The Court cited the MPC in thirty-one cases and six such cases either looked favorably upon or adopted the MPC position. (fn6)

  1. The Model Penal CodeOffered as a model upon which states could reform their criminal codes, the MPC was not intended by the American Law Institute as a uniform law (e.g., Uniform Commercial Code). While commercial transactions in a modern interstate economy require increasing uniformity among the states, the criminal laws can safely retain some jurisdictional uniqueness. Of particular importance is the MPC as an organized and integrated presentation of criminal law from which legislatures and courts can mine coherent information adaptable to the peculiarities of their jurisdiction without being bound to it in its entirety. (fn7)

    In spite of there being fifty-two criminal codes (i.e., each of the fifty states, the federal government, and the District of Columbia) in the United States they share similarities directly attributable to the influence of the MPC. Prior to the 1962 promulgation of the MPC, American jurisdictions had made several attempts at codification. In 1826, for example, a failed attempt was made to draft a comprehensive federal criminal code. The State of New York engineered a recodification of its penal law in 1881, and in 1967, revamped its criminal law relying heavily on the MPC. Other jurisdictions had criminal or penal codes, but they were collections of standalone statutes adopted in response to some perceived need, rather than integrated codes. Unlike previous and subsequent projects of the American Law Institute, the MPC was not drafted as a restatement of existing law. Because of the hodgepodge of criminal laws in the American jurisdictions, the ALI elected to draft a comprehensive model for use by the states in reforming their laws into logical bodies of integrated and comprehensive statutory schemes. The model code's drafters built on the foundation of existing law, but strove to develop a code which was more pragmatic and expedient. The MPC is not just the model statutory language, but also includes extensive commentaries which have been influential in both the legislative and judicial arenas. (fn8)

    While generally lauded as a significant and beneficial advance in American criminal law, the MPC does have its critics and has suffered from time. For example, the MPC was drafted before sexual offenses in the states became gender neutral and that prior prejudice is reflected in the document. (fn9) Among its strengths, however, is its systematic approach to criminal culpability. The MPC provides an analytical structure useful to lawyers, judges, and legislators. Arguably, the MPC's major contribution to American criminal law is its clarification of criminal intent, a concept which had come to be a nearly indecipherable grab-bag of judicial interpretations. Secondly, the ALI's reformulation of the insanity defense (i.e., the substantial capacity test) has revolutionized the defense in America. (fn10)

    Possibly the most significant contribution to the substantive criminal law of the last half of the twentieth century, the Model Penal Code's impact continues to be felt in the codification of criminal law, the scholarship of American criminal law, and the advances in the understanding of mens rea. The codification successes of the second half of the century are attributable, in part, to the quality...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT