To be convicted of most crimes, a defendant must have committed the crime with a certain state of mind. To commit a crime, the defendant must have acted with intent. The one exception to this rule is when defendant is charged with a so-called “statutory” offense, such as statutory rape. To convict defendant of a statutory crime, the prosecution must simply prove defendant committed a certain act; intent is irrelevant with statutory crimes.

There are different kinds of intent. Intent may be general; that is, the defendant must be aware ol the factors constituting the crime, and must have the desire to commit the criminal act. Certain crimes require more than this basic level of intent; these crimes require what the law calls “specific” intent. To act with specific intent, defendant must have not only the desire to commit the wrongful act, but also have the desire to achieve a certain result.  

What is General Intent?

A defendant acts with general intent when they are generally aware of the factors of the crime, and having such awareness, commit the crime. A jury is permitted to infer (draw a conclusion) that a defendant had the general intent to commit the offense, simply from committing the act.

Examples of general intent crimes include battery, false imprisonment, kidnapping, and forcible rape. These crimes are known as crimes against the person. For example, consider the following:

  • To commit battery, a defendant must apply unlawful force to another, resulting in injury or an offensive touching. Under this definition, a defendant need not desire to achieve a specific result;
  • To commit false imprisonment, a defendant must unlawfully confine another without that person’s consent. As is the case with battery, the crime is complete when the act has been committed. The defendant need not desire that another person be unlawfully confined. The defendant has committed the crime simply by confining the other person;
  • To commit kidnapping, a defendant must commit the act of false imprisonment. In addition, they must either move the victim or conceal the victim in a secret place. The criminal act has taken place upon completion of the false imprisonment and moving or concealing;
  • The elements of forcible rape are: intercourse, without the victim’s consent, accomplished either by:
    • Force; or
    • Threat of force; or
    • When the victim is unconscious

Again, the defendant need not have a desire to achieve a specific result.

What is Specific Intent?

A defendant acts with specific intent when the defendant intends to commit the offense, and when the defendant also desires to achieve a certain result. General intent crimes consist of (among other offenses) theft crimes. Theft crimes include (among others) larceny and robbery.

To commit larceny, defendant must take and carry away the personal property of another, with the intent to steal. To be convicted of larceny, defendant must not only desire to commit the act. The defendant must also desire, or specifically intend, a certain result:  that the property of the victim be stolen so that the victim no longer owns it.

To commit robbery, a defendant must commit larceny, In addition, they must steal the personal property from another’s person or presence, by force, or threat of immediate injury. To be convicted of robbery, the defendant must not only desire to commit the act of robbery. The defendant must also specifically intend to steal the personal property, to deprive the victim of ownership.

Is There a Difference Between Specific Intent and Motive?

Specific intent and motive are separate, distinct concepts. Motive is the reason or explanation for a crime. Motive is different from the intent to commit the crime. In other words, motive differs from intent. Motive is the “why” of a crime was committed. Generally, the existence of motive is not required to obtain a conviction for a criminal offense. The existence of motive may be relevant to assessing defendant’s credibility, or truthfulness, when testifying.

However, motive is not a specific element (an item that needs to be proven) with respect to a particular criminal offense. This is true whether that offense be a general intent crime, a specific intent crime, or a statutory crime.

Can Intent be Transferred?

Under the legal concept of “transferred intent,” a defendant may be guilty of an offense if the defendant has specific intent to commit a crime that occurs, but the victim or object is not the intended victim or object. 

For example, if a defendant intends to shoot and kill a person, but instead accidentally shoots a different person, the defendant can be guilty of the murder of the other person. Murder is a specific intent crime requiring an intent to kill. In such a case, where the “wrong” victim is murdered, the intent to kill is “transferred” from the intended victim to the actual one.

Do I Need a Lawyer if I Have Questions about Criminal Intent?

If you have been arrested for a general intent crime or a specific intent crime, you should consult an experienced criminal defense lawyer. The lawyer can advise you as to your rights and options, and can represent you at pretrial hearings, trial, and if necessary, at sentencing.