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What Does "Intent" Mean in Criminal Law?
In proving any type of criminal offense, a court must generally prove two elements:
- That the defendant physically committed the act in question. For example, if a defendant is facing a battery, the prosecution must prove the accused actually unlawfully touched another person.
- The prosecution will have to prove that the person acted with the corresponding criminal intent in order for it to be a crime.
Criminal intent refers to the person’s mind state and motivations that may be connected to the physical acts. There are different types of criminal intent, which depend largely on the type of crime committed. For example, with a theft, the prosecution would have to prove that they intended to permanently deprive someone else of the object, and had not just picked it up by accident.
Additionally, criminal intent may be classified into two categories, general intent and specific intent. Most crimes are classified according to either one of these categories, though some crimes require the prosecution to prove both types of intent. Typically, it is more difficult to prove specific intent crimes compared to general intent crimes.
What Is the Difference between General and Specific Intent?
The basic distinction between general and specific intent has to do with the person’s motivation at the time of the crime.
Specific intent requires that the person had a subjective desire or knowledge that their actions would bring about illegal conduct.
General intent crimes simply require that the person intended to perform the act in question.
What Are Some Examples of Specific and General Intent Crimes?
Theft is an example of a specific intent crime. With a theft, besides proving that the person physically possessed an item, it must be proven that the defendant specifically intended to permanently deprive the owner of the item.
In contrast, battery is a good example of a general intent crime. In proving battery, the prosecution does not need to prove that the person intentionally committed the battery by unlawfully making contact with someone. They may be held liable for battery even if they did not intend to touch to the person.
A good way to think of the difference between the two is that, for a general intent crime, basically the fact that you committed the act that lead to a crime means that you intended to for the crime itself to happen. While the act itself provides the basis for the defendant’s guilt, though it must still be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.
What Are Some Common Types of General Intent Crimes?
Some states may have certain property crimes as general intent crimes.
Are There Any Defenses That Involve General Intent?
Some defenses may be applicable to general intent crimes. For example, if the person is incapacitated due to intoxication, it may be a defense. However, the intoxication must have occurred involuntarily, such as when a person took ingested a substance not knowing that it was in fact a different drug, or if some one slipped them a substance in their drink.
Conditions of duress or coercion may also be a defense. An example of this type of situation is where an aggressor forces the defendant to injure a person, or else their loved one will be kidnapped if they do not comply.
Finally, a mistake of fact can also be a defense for a general intent crime. The mistake must be a reasonable one. Also, the mistake has to do with facts of the situation and not the law - it is almost never a complete defense to state that one was not aware a specific the law, but it may be exculpatory.
Specific intent crimes have a different set of available defenses than general intent crimes.
Do I Need a Lawyer?
If you have been implicated in charges for a general intent crime, it is essential that you obtain the opinion of a lawyer. You are entitled under law to be represented by an attorney, and you should not hesitate to contact one for advice and representation. As mentioned, general intent crimes are usually easier to prove than specific intent crimes.
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Last Modified: 02-28-2014 02:33 PM PST
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