New York criminal law does not, generally speaking, attach criminal liability to actions that are not accompanied by the requisite level of “guilty knowledge,” or mens rea. Thus, most New York crimes are broken down into at least two elements, the “act” element, and the “knowledge” or “intent” element. Even when a New York criminal statute does not specify that a certain level of knowledge or intent is required, courts will read in such a requirement. Possessory offenses are an excellent example of how this principle is applied by the courts.
A possessory offense is one in which the “act” element of the crime is fulfilled merely by possessing a prohibited object. New York drug and gun crimes are common examples of possessory crimes. For example, under New York Consolidated Laws Article 265, “a person is guilty of criminal possession of a firearm when he or she … possesses any firearm.”
At first glance, the wording of the statute would seem to indicate that anyone who has a weapon in their possession, regardless of whether they know they possess it, is guilty of the offense. However, criminal law disfavors this type of strict liability. Thus, courts generally require that a defendant knowingly possess a firearm before imposing criminal liability. It is important to note that the term “knowingly” goes to the object itself, and not the prohibited nature of the object. For example, a defendant who knowingly possesses a weapon but does not know that it is illegal to possess the weapon will be found to have “possessed” the illegal weapon.