What does “intent” mean in a criminal law setting?
In proving any type of criminal offense, a court must generally prove two elements. The first is that the defendant physically committed the act in question. For example, in a theft case, the prosecution must prove that the person actually stole the item.
Secondly, the court 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, in the theft example, the prosecution would have to prove that they intended to steal the object, and had not just picked it up by accident.
Criminal intent may be classified into two categories, “general intent” and “specific intent”. Most crimes are classified according to these categories, though some crimes require the prosecution to prove both types of intent. It is typically 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. In a specific intent crime, it must be proven that the person had a particular motive or intent that was driving the commission of the act. In contrast, for general intent crimes, the prosecution does not need to prove any specific motivation on the part of the defendant; the must simply prove that the person intended to perform the act.
For example, in the theft example, theft is a specific intent crime. Besides proving that the person physically stole the item, it must be proven that the defendant specifically intended to permanently deprive the owner of the item.
In contrast, a common general intent crime is battery. In proving battery, the prosecution does not need to prove that the person intentionally committed the battery by striking someone. They may be held liable for battery even if they did not intend to cause harm 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 proves that you intended to for it to happen. 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?
The two most common types of general intent crimes are assault and battery. Rape is also a general intent crime, as are kidnapping and false-imprisonment. Unless listed as a general intent crime, most other crimes including as property crimes are considered to be specific 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 (i.e., it is never a defense to state that one was not aware a specific the law).
Specific intent crimes have a different set of available defenses than general intent crimes.
Do I need a lawyer if I am involved in a general intent crime?
If you have been implicated in charges for a general intent crime, it can be 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. Working with an attorney will ensure that your legal arguments are thoroughly prepared, and they can determine if there are any defenses available.