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Specific Intent Crimes Explained: More Than Just the Act

Specific intent crimes are offenses that require the perpetrator to have a specific intention or purpose in committing the act beyond just the act itself. In other words, the individual must have intended to bring about a certain result or conduct themselves in a particular way.
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Specific Intent Crimes Explained

According to Legal Flip, specific intent in criminal law pertains to the mental state, known as mens rea, that an individual possesses when committing a crime [1]. It involves doing an act with a particular intent or purpose, which cannot be merely inferred from the act itself.

There must be a specific objective or reason for doing the actual act. However, many times the State can only show actions and/or inactions of the accused to prove a specific intent crime.

Specific Intent vs General Intent

Understanding the difference between specific and general intent crimes is crucial in criminal law.

Specific Intent Crimes

Specific intent crimes are those in which the prosecution must show the perpetrator has a particular purpose or objective in mind when committing the criminal act. In other words, not only do they intend to commit the act, but they also intend for a certain outcome due to their actions.

A prime example of a specific intent crime is Penal Code 187 PC murder, where prosecutors must demonstrate that the accused both killed someone and intended to kill them.

General Intent Crimes

Conversely, general intent crimes do not necessitate a specific intent to cause harm or achieve a particular result. Instead, prosecutors only need to prove that the act occurred or that the accused intended to commit the criminal act itself, without a specific intended result. California Vehicle Code 23152 VC DUI is an example of a general intent crime because prosecutors do not need to demonstrate intent to drive drunk—only that the accused drove willfully and happened to be intoxicated at the time.

Penal Code 240 PC simple assault is another general intent crime, where prosecutors must show that the accused willfully attempted to exert force on a person, without the need to prove intent to harm.

Actus Reus and Mens Rea

Actus reus refers to the physical act or unlawful conduct, while mens rea pertains to the accused’s mental state when committing the act. In general intent crimes, prosecutors must prove actus reus—that the accused acted willfully to commit the physical act of the crime. In specific intent crimes, prosecutors must prove both actus reus and mens rea—that the accused not only committed the crime but also intended to cause harm.

Examples of Specific Intent Crimes

In criminal law, assault is typically defined by statute, and the term battery is not commonly used. However, in civil law, assault, and battery are distinct concepts often defined separately.

In criminal law, assault can be described as an intentional act where a person knowingly causes or attempts to cause physical harm to another. For instance, if John punches someone in a bar because they refuse to give up their seat, he could be charged with assault because he intended to harm the other person by punching them.

In civil law, assault can be seen as an attempt to commit a battery or as an act that causes someone to fear they will suffer physical harm. For example, if John swings at someone in a bar but misses, he could face criminal and civil charges for assault. However, he could not be charged with civil battery unless he actually hit the person. This shows that criminal assault often involves causing or attempting to cause physical harm, while civil assault is more about attempting to cause harm (with civil battery referring to the actual harm caused).

Attempt is a criminal offense that requires an act done with the specific intent to commit a crime, even if the actual crime is not completed. Attempt crimes can include attempted murder, attempted burglary, attempted kidnapping, attempted assault, attempted robbery, and others.

For example, if John shoots at Matt several times while yelling threats but misses, he could be charged with attempted murder.

Originally, burglary at common law involved breaking and entering into another person’s property at night with the intent to commit a felony inside. Today, most jurisdictions have updated their laws to include burglary without the requirement of it being nighttime. Generally, entering a property with the intent to commit any crime can constitute burglary.

For instance, if John enters a house through an open window and steals a TV without the owner’s permission, he could be charged with burglary.

Conspiracy is a crime that involves an agreement between two or more individuals to commit a crime, along with a concrete step taken towards achieving that goal. Both parties must have the specific intent to enter into the agreement and to carry out the crime.

For example, if John and Ted agree to rob a bank, and John buys masks for the robbery while Ted drives him to the bank, they could both be charged with conspiracy to rob the bank, even before entering the bank.

Embezzlement occurs when someone in lawful possession of another person’s property fraudulently converts that property for their own use. This crime requires the specific intent to defraud the owner.

For instance, if John agrees to watch Matt’s bike while he’s away but then sells it without Matt’s consent, John could be charged with embezzlement.

Can You Commit a Crime Without Intent?

Certain types of offenses can be committed even without an intent to violate the law. These are known as strict liability crimes, where actions are deemed criminal regardless of the perpetrator’s awareness of breaking the law. A classic example is statutory rape, which is still considered a crime even if the lack of legal age was not known, discussed, or disclosed.

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