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Specific and General Intent Crimes

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What are the Differences between Specific and General Intent Crimes?

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.

What Is a Specific Intent Crime?

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.

What Is an Example of a Specific Intent 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.

Then What Is a General Intent Crime?

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.

How Does Any of this Make a Difference?

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.

I Didn't Act with the Required Specific Intent, Do I Need a Lawyer?

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.

Photo of page author Ken LaMance

, LegalMatch Law Library Managing Editor and Attorney at Law

Last Modified: 12-12-2017 10:37 PM PST

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