Automatism Defense

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 What Is Automatism?

Automatism is an act that is conducted without the doer’s intention or understanding. Automatism may be used as a defense for removing or reducing the charges if an individual faces criminal charges based on such an act.

An act that is done automatically, in this sense, dismisses the idea of the individual having the intent to commit the crime. Without that intent, their charges will likely be reduced.

What Are the Differences between Specific and General Intent Crimes?

Generally speaking, the concept of “intent” can greatly affect the outcome of a case. In the context of a criminal law case, intent is generally defined as the connection between a defendant’s state of mind and the physical act of perpetrating the crime with which they were charged.

Although various types of intent are specified under the common law, most common law crimes are categorized as either specific intent or general intent crimes. One of the primary distinctions between specific and general intent crimes is that specific intent crimes tend to be more difficult to demonstrate than general intent crimes.

Part of the reason for this is that specific intent crimes will require a prosecutor to prove that a defendant had both the want to commit the act and the understanding or intent that committing the act would achieve the result.

In contrast, a general intent crime will only need a prosecutor to demonstrate that a defendant had intended to perpetrate the act in question and that the act is forbidden by law or unlawful. In other words, you can be charged and convicted of a general intent crime simply by committing an act that is deemed both unlawful and a crime under the law.

To understand more about the distinctions between specific and general intent crimes in your state, you should speak to a local criminal defense attorney for further legal guidance. A lawyer can inform you whether your state recognizes the distinctions between specific and general intent crimes. They can also supply legal representation and other services if you face charges for supposedly perpetrating a specific or general intent crime.

What Are Specific Intent Crimes?

As mentioned in the above section, a specific intent crime is one wherein the prosecutor will need to establish that a defendant had both the intent to commit the crime and reach a particular result.

For example, theft is deemed a specific intent crime. Although the outcome of a case will also hinge on the kind of theft that was committed and on the rules in a certain jurisdiction, a prosecutor will normally be required to establish the following:

  • That the defendant is presently in possession of the stolen item;
  • The defendant had a wish to steal that item;
  • The defendant intended to deprive the valid owner of that item permanently; and
  • Any other elements required to establish theft in that state or based on the kind of theft crime committed.

One way to distinguish between specific and general intent crimes is to examine the statute for a particular crime. Many statutes for specific intent crimes will use words such as knowingly, intentionally, purposely, or willfully to represent the elements of the crime. Therefore, if a defendant fails to act with the requisite intent as specified by the statute, then they most likely will not be convicted of that specific intent crime.

Some other typical examples of specific intent crimes may include:

  • Premeditated murder or murder in the first degree;
  • Robbery and burglary;
  • Conspiracy;
  • Solicitation;
  • Embezzlement;
  • Forgery;
  • Larceny;
  • False pretenses;
  • Child molestation; and
  • Attempt.

What Are General Intent Crimes?

A general intent crime will only demand a prosecutor to establish that the defendant intended to carry out the activities associated with the crime. They will not need to demonstrate that the defendant had any further rationales, intentions, or purposes as they do when establishing a specific intent crime.

Only the intended actions of the defendant matter with a general intent crime, not the results of their action. Therefore, general intent crimes tend to be more straightforward than specific intent crimes since the prosecutor will not need to demonstrate that a defendant has a specific motive. They have to show that the defendant had the intent to perpetrate an act that is also a crime under the law. The defendant does not necessarily have to know that the act is prohibited.

Again, unlike specific intent crimes, a general intent crime does not demand a prosecutor demonstrate that the defendant intended to cause specific harm or outcome. A general intent crime requires no further proof of a mental state than a willingness to commit the act; hence, most state statutes will only define the act and not express an intent to commit the crime.

For instance, when establishing the crime of battery, a prosecutor will not be directed to demonstrate that a defendant deliberately perpetrated battery. Rather, they only need to demonstrate that a defendant unlawfully used force against another that resulted in offensive touching or bodily harm.

The defendant can still be charged and convicted of battery even if they had no intentions of touching that individual. Contrarily, a prosecutor will not need to establish a defendant intended to touch them either.

Some other examples of criminal acts that are generally considered general intent crimes include the following:

  • Assault;
  • Battery;
  • Kidnapping;
  • Rape;
  • Involuntary manslaughter;
  • False imprisonment; and
  • Driving under the influence (i.e., a “DUI”) or similar driving crime.

In addition, some states also classify specific property crimes as general intent crimes in their state criminal codes.

One last note concerning general intent crimes is that while the action itself delivers the foundation of a defendant’s guilt, the prosecutor must still be able to demonstrate that a defendant committed the crime per the standard of beyond a reasonable doubt.

What Are Some Examples of Automatism?

Examples of automatism include actions done while:

  • Sleepwalking;
  • Mentally ill or disordered (as in when a person becomes dissociated or hypoglycemic);
  • Experiencing epileptic seizure or other physical disorder causing involuntary physical
  • movements; or
  • Involuntary intoxicated (e.g., drugged).

The primary issue is whether the doer of the act had control over that action and was capable of forming criminal intent. For example, a willingly intoxicated individual cannot claim automatism as a defense because they had control over becoming intoxicated, which led to their criminal activity. In contrast, someone involuntarily intoxicated, not by choice, did not create the circumstances that led to the criminal act. A person who becomes hypoglycemic may not be considered to have control of their actions, but a person with diabetes who is aware of the prospect of their illness potentially causing them to lose control will more likely be held to have had intent.

A driver who falls asleep will likely be held accountable for any actions materializing while driving asleep. A driver should have identified the need to pull over and not drive a car while impaired.

Awareness is the key to uncovering whether individuals have control over their actions. If individuals know the condition leading to their criminal activity, they will likely be held responsible. But they must indeed have no consciousness of what they were doing when they committed the crime as they could not form the necessary intent.

Do You Need a Lawyer If You Think You Have a Defense of Automatism?

If proven correct, automatism can change the outcome of your case. However, applying it as a defense depends on the crime you’ve been charged with. A defense of automatism must be carefully applied, and the best chance for a successful defense is if you contact a local criminal lawyer.


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