Specific intent in criminal law refers to the mental state, legally called the mens rea, that an individual has when committing a crime. Specific intent means that an individual did a certain act with a specific intent or purpose. This type of mental state cannot be just inferred from merely doing the act. 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.
For purposes of clarity, let’s also briefly discuss the three other types of intent crimes: (i) general intent crimes, (ii) crimes committed with malice, and (iii) strict liability crimes.
General intent crimes do not require proof that a person intended the precise harm or result that occurred. Rather, the State only needs to prove that the act was committed and it was not an accident. Crimes committed with malice require that the State prove that a person acted deliberately to cause unjustifiable injury to another. However, most jurisdictions do not use the term "malice" anymore. Instead, crimes committed with malice have mostly been written into statutes as specific intent crimes or have been omitted. Finally, strict liability crimes require no mental state to prove a person liable for the crime. Rather, the State only needs to prove that the person committed the crime. Strict liability crimes include such crimes as driving while intoxicated or statutory rape For example, statutory rape means that the defendant raped a minor under a certain age. In this crime, the State does not need to prove whether the defendant knew the age of the minor or whether the defendant thought the minor consented. In other words, statutory rape statute means that by law minors cannot consent to sex with adults.
Ok, if this is starting to sound confusing, don’t worry. We’ll be going over specific intent crimes and giving examples about how and why they are labeled as specific intent crimes. After you read this article, you’ll have a much better idea about specific intent crimes and how they differ from the other three types of mental states associated with crimes. Then, come back to this section and read it again, if needed.
Next, let’s go over an example to illustrate the concept of specific intent.