Under the common law there is a distinction between specific and general intent crimes. The basic difference between the two is that specific intent crimes require the individual who commits the crime to have a certain intent or purpose when the crime was committed, where as general intent crimes do not. Some jurisdictions have done away with this distinction.
If you are accused of a specific intent crime, the prosecution must prove that when you committed the crime you had the requisite intent or purpose. This intent will be listed in the statute that defines the crime. If you did not act with this intent or purpose such as if your actions had been part of a harmless prank, then you cannot be convicted of the crime.
The best example of a specific intent crime is theft. Most every theft statute requires that when you take something that you take it with the intent to deprive the owner permanently. For example, auto theft requires that you intent to deprive the owner of the car permanently. If you don't have this intent, then you cannot be convicted of theft.
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.
The distinction between specific and general intent crimes can make a huge difference as a defense. If you are charged with a specific intent crime, the government will have to prove that you had the purpose that is included in the definition of the crime. In other words, the government will have to prove another element in order to convict you. If you didn't have the specific intent required, then you have a defense and cannot be convicted.
Anytime you are accused of a crime you should consult a lawyer as soon as possible. The distinction between specific intent and general intent crimes does not exist in all states. An experienced criminal defense lawyer will know whether a crime you are charged with is a specific or general intent crime and can advise you of your rights and defenses.
Last Modified: 12-12-2017 10:37 PM PSTLaw Library Disclaimer
We've helped more than 4 million clients find the right lawyer – for free. Present your case online in minutes. LegalMatch matches you to pre-screened lawyers in your city or county based on the specifics of your case. Within 24 hours experienced local lawyers review it and evaluate if you have a solid case. If so, attorneys respond with an offer to represent you that includes a full attorney profile with details on their fee structure, background, and ratings by other LegalMatch users so you can decide if they're the right lawyer for you.