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Intent to Commit a Crime: Planning vs. Doing Explained

Intent to commit a crime refers to the mental state or mindset of a person when they perform an act that is considered a crime. It involves the purpose or desire to engage in conduct that is unlawful. Intent is a crucial element in determining criminal liability, as it distinguishes between accidental or unintentional acts and deliberate criminal acts.
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C.L. Mike Schmidt Published by C.L. Mike Schmidt

How is Criminal Intent Proven?

According to SCLG, law enforcement and prosecutors establish criminal intent using either direct evidence or indirect evidence, also known as circumstantial evidence [1]. Direct evidence directly proves a fact, while circumstantial evidence implies a fact.

Law enforcement does not need direct evidence to secure a conviction. In fact, many cases rely entirely on circumstantial evidence of a defendant’s intent – SCLG.

The level of intent is crucial, known in legal terms as mens rea, or “guilty mind.” Many crimes require both mens rea and actus reus, or “guilty act.”

Some criminal laws demand intentional acts, while others require recklessness or even negligence. Some laws don’t necessitate any specific mental state. These laws fall into three categories: specific intent crimes, general intent crimes, and strict liability crimes. Only the first two require mens rea.

State criminal laws typically follow the Model Penal Code, which distinguishes between four types of culpable mental states: intent or purpose, knowledge, recklessness, and negligence.

Proving intentional action is challenging for prosecutors compared to demonstrating negligence. However, in either case, the burden of proof is met through direct or circumstantial evidence.

Specific Intent vs General Intent

In the realm of criminal law, the distinction between specific and general intent crimes plays a pivotal role, delineating the varying mental states necessary for criminal responsibility.

These categories not only impact the charges leveled against an individual but also shape the defense strategies employed on their behalf. At the core of criminal liability lies mens rea, or criminal intent, which crucially influences everything from charging decisions to sentencing.

Specific Intent Crimes:

In specific intent crimes, the prosecution must establish that the defendant not only engaged in the prohibited act (actus reus) but also harbored a particular mental state or purpose beyond the mere commission of the act. These crimes require a higher level of culpability, as they involve intent to achieve a specific outcome beyond the actions themselves.

Examples of Specific Intent Crimes:

  • Burglary: A quintessential example, burglary requires the defendant to unlawfully enter a structure (actus reus) with the specific intent to commit a theft or felony therein.
  • First-Degree Murder: In cases of first-degree murder, the prosecution must prove that the defendant intentionally caused the death of another person (actus reus) with premeditation and deliberation, indicating a specific intent to take a life.

Possible Defenses for Specific Intent Crimes:

Lack of Intent: A primary defense involves challenging the prosecution’s ability to prove the required specific intent beyond a reasonable doubt. The defense may argue that the defendant did not possess the necessary mental state to commit the crime.

General Intent Crimes:

In contrast, general intent crimes do not necessitate the establishment of a specific, conscious intent beyond the act itself. Here, the prosecution only needs to show that the defendant intended to engage in the prohibited act, regardless of any specific ulterior motive.

Examples of General Intent Crimes:

  • Assault: An archetypal general intent crime, assault requires the defendant to intentionally engage in an act that causes another person to reasonably fear imminent harmful or offensive contact.
  • Rape: In rape cases, the prosecution must demonstrate that the defendant intentionally engaged in sexual intercourse without the victim’s consent, focusing on the intent to engage in the act itself rather than a specific intent to cause harm.

How the Element of Criminal Intent Affects Defending Against a Criminal Charge

In crafting a robust defense against a criminal charge, a proficient criminal defense attorney heavily relies on investigating and analyzing the circumstances surrounding the arrest and charge.

However, what defendants often overlook is that the defense strategy also hinges on the precise definition of the offense, including whether it involves specific intent or general intent. Your lawyer must consider both aspects.

For a specific intent charge, successfully negating the element of intent may not allow the defendant to escape conviction entirely. The conduct still may constitute a different offense that requires only general intent.

A prime example is first-degree murder. If a prosecutor cannot prove the required premeditation for a first-degree murder conviction, the conduct might still satisfy the elements of a different homicide offense that requires only general intent, such as second-degree murder or manslaughter.

The pivotal role of intent in shaping a defense strategy underscores the importance of having an experienced criminal defense lawyer represent you against any criminal charge.

Defending against a charge involves much more than just evaluating the conduct leading to the arrest. Only a knowledgeable defense attorney possesses the skill to identify and pursue all potential avenues to defeating a criminal charge, including defenses related to criminal intent.

If you find yourself under criminal investigation or arrest, you should not be preoccupied with whether the potential charges require specific or general criminal intent. However, it’s crucial to remember that your words and actions could provide evidence relevant to intent as an element of a criminal charge. This underscores the importance of knowing your rights and asserting them from your initial contact with law enforcement.

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