Criminal Intent and the Law
In the criminal justice system, defendants can be charged with crimes based upon their specific actions. For example, a person who steals a car can face legal charges and potentially be convicted because they committed an action that is in violation of the law.
However, the legal system also considers the state of mind of a person who breaks the law. This is referred to as criminal intent. The presence or lack of criminal intent can play a major role in a legal case. Criminal intent can determine the severity of a person’s sentence and it may affect the charges for which they can face conviction.
What Is Criminal Intent?
In legal terms, criminal intent is a state of mind that informs or directs a person’s illegal actions. It is the thought process that a person goes through when they decide to break the law. This state of mind is often referred to as “mens rea“, which is a Latin phrase that can be translated as “guilty mind.”
Criminal intent refers to two primary concepts:
- A specific decision to commit an illegal act
- A state of recklessness that shows disregard for the law and the safety of others
This is an important legal concept because it can affect the way an illegal action is perceived by the public and by the courts. For example, a person who decides to break into a neighbor’s home to steal items has a criminal intent to commit an act of burglary. However, a person who walks into their neighbor’s home uninvited to borrow some items may not have an intent to break the law.
The person in the first scenario may be held liable for their actions. In the second scenario, the person who simply walked in uninvited may avoid prosecution because they had no intention to break the law.
Also, a person who has specific criminal intent may face harsher penalties than a person who did not possess intent. For example, intentionally planning to kill another person and acting on that plan can lead to first degree murder charges. However, killing another person accidentally may lead to manslaughter charges because criminal intent was not present.
It’s important to note that criminal intent can’t be proven. Instead, criminal intent is demonstrated by a person’s actions or statements.
Types of Intent
In legal practice there are two types on intent:
- General Intent
- Specific Intent
These two types of intent are used to classify different types and degrees of crimes. In many cases, the prosecution must point out signs of a defendant’s intent in order to convict them of the crime. This means that they must highlight specific actions or statements which show that the defendant broke the law willingly and on purpose.
In most cases, this will mean proving that the defendant had general intent. General intent refers to the state of mind a person has when they willingly break the law. To establish general intent, it isn’t necessary to prove that the defendant understood or anticipated the outcome of their actions. Instead, the prosecution only has to show that the defendant understood that their actions were illegal.
For example, a person who gets into an argument on the street and then punches the person they are disagreeing with can be charged with assault. This is because it is clear that they chose to break the law by intentionally punching another person in an argument. It doesn’t matter whether or not they meant to give the other person a black eye. The fact that they willingly struck another person is enough to pursue a conviction.
Specific intent refers to the state of mind of a person who breaks the law for a specific purpose. For example, breaking into a house in order to steal electronics is a specific intent crime. The person who committed the break-in intentionally broke the law in order to gain valuable items for themselves. In other words, they broke the law with a specific intent in mind.
Specific intent laws are usually considered more serious than general intent crimes and can be punished more harshly. Other examples of specific intent crimes include:
A prosecutor who can bring evidence that points to a defendant’s criminal state of mind can establish specific intent. A defense attorney may be able to counter these claims by introducing evidence highlighting the defendant’s lack of premeditation or intentional ideas.