Some sort of criminal intent (mens rea) is typically required in order to be convicted of a crime. When someone is charged with a crime, it is usually because there is an allegation that they willfully and purposely did something. True accidents rarely lead to criminal convictions, because crimes require some sort of criminal intent. The level of intent however, varies based on the crime. In this blog we will attempt to shed some light on different levels of intent, and how this intent is typically and essential element of the crime.
Like most other matters involving criminal law, this can be a very complicated topic and, therefore, we recommend that you hire an attorney if you have additional questions about it. This blog is intended for informational purposes only and would be a poor substitute for the advice and counsel of a criminal defense lawyer.
Voluntary actions (actus reas) with regards to criminal charges
In order to be convicted of a crime, it has to have been found that the defendant did something, voluntarily. It is not always an excuse that the thing that they did had a different result than what was intended. This is where people tend to get confused… A quick example will help illustrate what we mean:
- Someone was driving 80 miles per hour on a 45 mile per hour street and struck a pedestrian and killed them. This would lead to homicide charges. Though the person driving didn’t intend to kill anyone, that person still voluntarily drove 80 miles per hour, so legally speaking they have to live with the consequences that resulted from this action.
Depending on the crime, requisite criminal intent may be found in cases where a person acted intentionally, recklessly, or even negligently. Some crimes require malice (a wrongful act done willfully), which can occur through intentional or extremely reckless behavior. The criminal intent requirements depend upon the crime and sometimes the circumstances. For example, first degree premeditated murder requires intentional behavior carried out with the intent to kill someone. While second degree murder requires recklessness rather than intentional behavior with the intent to kill someone. Both require malice. Conversely, involuntary manslaughter does not require any malice.
General Intent Crimes
A general intent crime is one that the defendant is acting in a way where it is reasonable that certain consequences will result from those actions, and at least some of those consequences amount to a crime. In our example above, second degree murder is a general intent crime, meaning one does not have to have a specific intent to kill.
Examples of general intent crimes
Specific Intent Crimes
A specific intent crime requires that the person doing the act had a specific intent or objective while doing so, and that intent was the crime charged. In our example above, first degree premeditated murder is a specific intent crime because it requires a specific intent to kill. Another example is larceny, which requires the intent to permanently deprive a person of something.
Examples of specific intent crimes
Strict liability crimes
A strict liability offense is one that does not require awareness of all the factors constituting the crime. It still requires a voluntary act (or the intent to commit this voluntary act), but guilt can be found by the mere commission of the fact rather than any intended consequences, or likely consequences. An example is statutory rape, where only the intent to have sex with a person is required. Intent to have sex with an underaged person is NOT required and mistake of fact as to the victim’s age is not a defense.
Examples of strict liability offense
- Statutory rape
- Selling alcohol to minors
Defenses that may negate criminal intent requirement
Certain defenses are applicable to certain crimes because they eliminate criminal intent. Examples of some of the affirmative defenses that may negate intent include duress, insanity, mistake of fact.
Criminal matters are complicated and expert advice is necessary to help you navigate through them. If you have been charged with a crime, contact us. At Gilles Law we handle North Carolina criminal defense, South Carolina criminal defense, and Federal criminal defense.