Specific and General Intent Crimes

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 What are the Differences between Specific and General Intent Crimes?

Generally speaking, the concept of “intent” can have a significant effect on the outcome of a case. In the context of a criminal law case, intent is typically defined as the connection between a defendant’s state of mind and the physical act of committing the crime with which they were charged.

Although there are a few different kinds of intent specified under the common law, the majority of common law crimes are classified as either specific intent or general intent crimes. One of the main differences between specific and general intent crimes is that specific intent crimes tend to be harder to prove than general intent crimes.

Part of the reason for this is because specific intent crimes will require a prosecutor to prove that a defendant had both the desire to commit the act as well as the knowledge or intent that committing the act would achieve the end result.

In contrast, a general intent crime will only require a prosecutor to prove that a defendant had intended to perform the act in question and that the act is one that is prohibited by law or is illegal. In other words, you can be charged and convicted of a general intent crime simply by committing an act that is considered both illegal and a crime under the law.

To learn more about the differences between specific and general intent crimes in your state, you should speak to a local criminal defense lawyer for further legal advice. A lawyer can inform you as to whether your state recognizes the differences between specific and general intent crimes. They can also provide legal representation and other services if you are currently facing charges for supposedly committing 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 prove that a defendant had both the intent to not only commit the crime, but also to achieve a specific end result.

For instance, theft is considered a specific intent crime. Although the outcome of a case will also depend on the type of theft that was committed and on the laws in a particular jurisdiction, a prosecutor will generally be required to prove the following:

  • That the defendant is currently in possession of the stolen item;
  • The defendant had a desire to steal that item;
  • The defendant intended to permanently deprive the true owner of that item; and
  • Any other elements that are required to prove theft in that state or based on the type of theft crime committed.

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

Some other common examples of specific intent crimes may include:

  • Premediated 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?

As mentioned above in the first section, a general intent crime will only require a prosecutor to prove that the defendant intended to carry out the act associated with the crime. They will not need to prove that the defendant had any additional motives, intentions, or purposes like they do when proving a specific intent crime.

Only the intended actions of the defendant matter with a general intent crime, not the end results of their action. Thus, general intent crimes tend to be easier to prove than specific intent crimes since the prosecutor will not need to show that a defendant has specific motive. They just have to show that the defendant had the intent to commit an act that is also a crime under the law. The defendant does not even necessarily have to know that the act is illegal.

Again, unlike specific intent crimes, a general intent crime does not require a prosecutor to show that the defendant had intended to cause a specific harm or outcome. A general intent crime requires no further proof of a mental state than beyond a willingness to commit the act. Hence, why most state statutes will only describe the act and will not describe an intent to commit the crime.

For example, when proving the crime of battery, a prosecutor will not be required to show that a defendant intentionally committed battery. Instead, they only need to show 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 person. Conversely, a prosecutor will not need to show a defendant intended to touch them either.

Some other examples of criminal acts that are typically 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 categorize certain property crimes as general intent crimes in their state criminal codes.

One final note regarding general intent crimes is that while the act itself provides the basis of a defendant’s guilt, the prosecutor must still be able to prove that a defendant committed the crime in accordance with the standard of beyond a reasonable doubt.

Does it Make a Difference If It’s a General Intent or a Specific Intent Crime?

As previously discussed, it is generally much more difficult for a prosecutor to prove the elements of a specific intent crime than it is to prove those of a general intent crime. Again, a specific intent crime will require the prosecutor to prove that a defendant both wanted to commit the act and intended to accomplish the end result of the act.

The prosecutor will also need to prove every single element of a crime that is listed in the state statute. Thus, if a prosecutor fails to prove that a defendant did not possess the requisite specific intent or knowledge to commit the crime, then the defendant will most likely not be convicted.

In addition, there are a lot more legal defenses available to defendants who commit specific intent crimes when compared to those that a defendant can raise for committing a general intent crime.

I Didn’t Act with the Required Specific Intent. Do I Need a Lawyer?

If you have been charged with committing a general intent crime, then you should consult with a local criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. An experienced criminal defense attorney will be able to walk you through the charges, can discuss the best way to proceed with your case, and can explain the potential legal consequences you may face if convicted.

You should also consider hiring a criminal defense attorney if you do not believe that you acted with the required specific intent to be charged with a certain crime. Your attorney can inform you of your rights as a criminal defendant under the laws of your state and can conduct legal research to find out if there are any defenses available that you can raise against your charges.

In addition, your attorney will be able to either negotiate with the prosecutor for a plea deal on your behalf or can provide legal representation in criminal court if it is necessary.

Lastly, your attorney can also tell you whether you live in a state that separates crimes by specific and general intent. This particular factor can be important to your case since it is generally harder to prove the elements of specific intent crimes. There are also many more options for legal defenses available.

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