Under the common law there are two general categories of crimes referred to as specific and general intent crimes. All crimes have two key parts known as the "actus reus" and the "mens rea". The actus reus refers to the requisite act of crime, and the "mens rea" refers to the requisite mental element of the crime.
The main difference between specific and general intent crimes comes down to the "actus reus" and "mens rea" components of each crime. Specific intent crimes require the individual to have a desire to commit the act, as well as, an intent to achieve a specific result.
Comparably, general intent crimes, you need only intend to commit an act which the law makes criminal. Meaning, you can be convicted of a general intent crime just by committing the crime.
What are Specific Intent Crimes?
Specific Intent refers to your state of mind at the time of the commission of the crime. Specific intent requires not only doing an unlawful act, but the doing of it with an additional subjective intent or objective.
The two levels of intent will be listed in the statute that defines the crime. Specific intent crimes are usually indicated by the use of such words as intentionally, knowingly, purposely, or willfully. Generally, if you did not act with the required intent, such as, if your actions had been part of a harmless prank, then you cannot be convicted of a specific crime.
For example, theft crimes are specific intent crimes because not only must the you intentionally commit an act of taking of another's property, but you must also act with the intent to permanently deprive the owner of their property.
Additional examples of specific intent crimes are:
- Child Molestation;
- False Pretenses;
- Theft (also called Larceny);
- Robbery; and
- Murder (most jurisdictions call this First Degree or Premeditated Murder).
What are General Intent Crimes?
A general intent crime only requires that you intend to perform the act. That is, you don't need any additional intention or purpose. For example, assault is usually a general intent crime. You only need to intend your actions, not any particular result. General intent crimes are easier to prove because it is not necessary to show that you had some particular purpose.
General intent refers to your state of mind at the time the crime was committed. A general intent crime requires only an intent to do an act that the law declares to be a crime even though the perpetrator may not know the act is unlawful.
For a general intent crime it is not necessary for the prosecution to prove that you intend to cause a specific harm or end result. General intent crimes require no further mental state beyond a willingness to commit a crime. Usually a definition of a general intent crime describes only a specific act, and does not include a need for an intent to commit the crime.
A common example of a general intent crime is battery. It is a general intent crime because the prosecution only needs to prove that you “intentionally or recklessly touched a person in a harmful or offensive manner” to convict you of battery. Battery does not require an additional mental state, meaning, you don’t have to intend to hurt the person in order to be convicted.
Additional examples of general intent crimes include:
- Manslaughter (also referred to as Second Degree Murder);
- Arson; and
For a DUI, you do not need to “intend” to drive drunk, instead you simply need to be drunk and drive. In many situations, those charged with a DUI did not consider themselves to be impaired enough to be guilty of a DUI. If it was also necessary for them to intend to openly break the law, then most people would not be guilty of a DUI.
Does it Make a Difference If It’s a General Intent or a Specific Intent Crime?
The distinction between specific and general intent crimes makes a difference when it comes to the prosecution's case and defense. As previously mentioned, if you are charged with a specific intent crime, the prosecution will have to prove that you had the intent to commit the crime, and the intent to achieve the result of the crime.
They will need to prove every element that is included in the definition of the crime in your state’s statute. If you didn't have the specific intent required for the requisite mens rea and actus reus, then you have a defense and generally cannot be convicted.
I Didn't Act with the Required Specific Intent, Do I Need a Lawyer?
Whether you are charged with a specific or general intent crime, it is always advisable to consult an attorney right away. Most states differentiate between specific and general crimes, however there are some that do not.
An experienced criminal defense attorney in your area will know what classification your crime is in. They will also know what elements the prosecution will need to prove, and if you have any defenses available to you. Additionally, they can advise you of your rights and help you build the defense to your case.