10 Specific Intent Crimes
According to common law, in order for something to be classified as a "crime," a certain number of elements must be met. At a bare minimum, a crime usually requires (i) proof of some type of physical act (called the actus reus) and proof of a (ii) certain mental state (called the mens rea) by the person while committing the act. In other words, the State (i.e. government) must prove that a person actually committed the act accused of and acted with a certain mental state. The State must also generally prove that the act and the mental state occurred at the same time (i.e. they occurred concurrently). The State may also have to prove causation and a harmful result.
In this article, we’re going to focus on element (ii) – the mental state, also referred to as the mens rea. Further, with respect to the mens rea, or the mental state, crimes can be classified into four main categories, including: (i) specific intent crimes, (ii) general intent crimes, (iii) crimes committed with malice, and (iv) strict liability crimes. We’re going to focus on specific intent crimes in this article.
In this article, we’ll be focusing on 10 specific intent crimes. Next, we’ll take a look at the meaning of specific intent.
Specific Intent Defined
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.
Specific Intent Example – House Party Fight at College
Bill and Lynn are juniors at State Community College and have been dating for two years. They just recently moved into the same house and decided to throw a party on Friday after school. All their friends and many other students come to the party. There’s a lot of drinking involved and many people began to act out.
Later in the evening, Bill walks down into the basement and finds Lynn kissing another male student called Rob. Bill is completely shocked and yells at Rob to get off of Lynn. Lynn then tells Bill that she has been "seeing" Rob for about three months and doesn’t want to date Bill anymore. Lynn tells Bill that she is going to move her stuff out of the house tomorrow.
Bill becomes extremely upset and punches the wall with his fist about six feet away from where Rob is sitting. Bill then yells at both Rob and Lynn to get the "hell out of my house." Bill opens the back door and Lynn walks out onto the patio. Then, Bill pushes Rob out of the door. Rob stumbles out onto the patio, loses his balance, and trips down the stairs landing on his head. Rob is knocked unconscious. Someone from the party calls 911 and Rob is rushed to the emergency room. Rob later dies in the hospital due to the combination of his head injury and a prior heart condition that he had which no one knew about.
Both Rob and Bill drank about 8-10 beers each that night and were drunk when this event occurred.
Issue: Can the State charge Bill with murder? Felonious assault? What is the proper charge?
Ok. Here’s where it becomes important to understand the difference between specific intent, general intent, and the other types of mental states required to prove a crime.
First, to prove murder, we would have to read what the statute says. Generally speaking, to prove murder the State would need to prove that Bill acted purposefully or knowingly with the specific intent to kill Rob. Can the State prove that?
We now have to examine all the facts of the event. For example, Bill was very angry because he caught another guy making out with his girlfriend Lynn at his own house after he had just moved in with Lynn. Lynn also broke up with Bill right there on the spot. Further, Bill was drunk and had never met Rob before this night. Finally, the facts indicate that Bill "pushed" Rob out the door and Rob then stumbled and fell down the steps landing on his head.
Many of the facts seem to indicate that Bill did not purposefully kill Rob. For example, Bill was very angry because Rob was kissing his girlfriend in his own house, and Lynn broke up with him right there when this occurred. Bill had not met Rob prior to this night and had no reason to dislike Rob prior to this event. Bill was drunk and maybe didn’t know the strength of his own actions when he pushed Rob. Finally, Bill only pushed Rob and did not punch him or otherwise hit him. Rob then stumbled and likely fell because he was drunk and had no balance.
So, if the State did charge Bill with the murder of Rob what would be the likely verdict of a jury or judge? Well, first the judge or jury would have to hear the testimony of the witnesses and view all the evidence. However, from the facts presented, it seems that the State would likely have an uphill battle to prove that Bill acted with the specific intent to kill Rob. In fact, that seems unlikely. However, the State would have a much stronger case to prove that Bill committed felonious assault. Felonious assault is generally still a specific intent crime. However, the State generally only has to show that the defendant intended to cause serious physical harm to another. Here, the State would have a much better chance at proving that Bill intended to hurt Rob and cause physical harm. The issue would be whether Bill intended to cause serious physical harm. That would be left up to the judge or jury to decide.
So, now you see a specific intent crime plays out in a real world example.
Next, let’s look at 5 out of the 10 specific intent crimes on our list.
Crimes 1 – 5
In criminal law in most jurisdictions, assault is defined by statute and the term battery
is not used. However, in civil law, the terms assault
are often used and defined slightly different than each other.
In criminal law, assault can be defined as an act in which no person shall knowingly cause or attempt to cause physical harm to another. For example, if John punches a guy at a bar because the guy won’t give John his seat back, John will likely be charged with assault because he specifically intended to cause physical harm to the other guy by punching him.
In civil law, assault can be defined as an attempt to commit a battery, or the act of placing an individual in apprehension that he or she will be subjected to some type of physical harm. For example, if John swung at the guy at the bar and missed him, John could be charged criminally and civilly for assault, but he could not be charged civilly for battery. If John actually hit the guy at the bar, he could be charged criminally for assault and battery. So, the distinction is that criminal assault generally applies to causing or attempting to cause physical harm, while civil assault only applies to attempting to cause physical harm (and civil battery equates to causing physical harm).
Attempt is a crime that requires an act, done with the specific intent to commit a crime that falls short of completing the actual crime. An attempt crime can be charged with just about any other crime. For example, attempt crimes include attempted murder, attempted burglary, attempted kidnapping, attempted assault, attempted robbery, etc.
For example, if John shoots a gun at Matt multiple times while yelling "I want to kill you," but never hits Matt, John would likely be charged with attempted murder.
At common law, burglary is defined as the breaking and entering into the place of another at nighttime with the intent to commit a felony within that place. So, common law burglary requires the specific intent to commit a felony within that place.
Today, most jurisdictions have codified the term "burglary" under criminal statute. Burglary does not need to be committed at night, and generally if a person enters the place of another to commit any crime that person would be guilty of burglary. For example, if John opens a window to a house, enters the house, and steals a TV without the permission of the homeowner, John has committed burglary.
Conspiracy is a crime that requires some type of agreement between at least two individuals with the specific intent to both enter into the agreement and to achieve a certain goal of the agreement. In other words, two or more individuals must agree to commit some crime and take some concrete step in carrying out the crime. For example, if John and Ted agree to rob a bank, and John goes and buys masks for the robbery and Ted picks up John and drives him to the bank with the intent to rob the bank – they are both guilty of conspiracy to rob the bank (even before either of them enters the bank).
Embezzlement is the fraudulent conversion of the personal property of another individual by a person who is in lawful possession of that property. This crime requires the specific intent to defraud another individual. For example, if John agrees to watch Matt’s bike while he is on vacation, then sells it to someone on Craiglist without Matt’s consent, John is guilty of embezzlement.
Next, we’ll now go over the remaining 5 specific intent crimes on our list.
Crimes 6 – 10
6. False Pretenses
False Pretenses is obtaining title to the personal property of another individual by an intentional false statement of fact with the intent to defraud the other individual. This crime requires the specific intent to defraud another individual.
For example, Sam tells his elderly neighbor that he’ll watch her house and cars when she is gone in Florida for the winter. However, he asks her to give him legal power of attorney over her vehicles in case "anything comes up." The elderly neighbor agrees and signs over legal power of attorney to Sam for her cars. Then, as soon as the elderly neighbor leaves for Florida, Sam takes both of her cars and sells them. Here, Sam obtained legal title to his neighbor’s cars through false pretenses. In other words, Sam never meant to use the legal title for what he said he would – he only wanted to defraud his neighbor.
7. First Degree Premeditated Murder
First Degree Premeditated Murder is making the decision to kill in a composed manner, and then executing the crime itself.
This is one of the highest crimes around and requires the specific intent to premeditate and/or reflect on killing another individual. In other words, the State would have to show that the defendant set up a plan to kill the victim and carried out that plan. This is often a difficult crime to prove beyond a reasonable doubt.
Forgery is creating or altering a legal document so that it is false with the intent to defraud an individual. This requires the specific intent to defraud another individual. For example, if John puts his name in the will of his uncle to get his uncle’s house upon his uncle’s death, without the consent of his uncle, John has committed forgery.
Larceny is the taking and carrying away of the tangible personal property of another individual without proper consent, with the specific intent to permanently deprive that individual of that property.
This crime requires the specific intent to permanently deprive another individual of his or her property.
Today, the term "larceny" is often replaced with the term of “theft.”
Solicitation is the act of inciting another individual to commit a crime, with the specific intent that the individual solicited actually commit the crime.
This requires the specific intent to have the individual whom is solicited commit a certain crime. For example, John asks Ben to break into John’s neighbor’s house and steal an expensive guitar in the basement. Ben then breaks into John’s neighbor’s house and steals the expensive guitar and gives it to John for $100. Here, John has solicited Ben to commit burglary with the specific intent to carry out the burglary.
Finally, let’s conclude this article with a brief overview of a few key points.
In this article, we explored 10 specific intent crimes. We explored the meaning of specific intent, supplied a real world example of specific intent, and gave definitions and examples of specific intent crimes. You now should have a better understanding about how specific intent crimes work and how they need to be proven.
Remember, specific intent crimes differ from general intent crimes, malice crimes, and strict liability crimes. Overall, specific intent crimes often require stronger and more credible evidence to prove than other types of crimes.
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