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What is Criminal Intent?

By Felicia Dye
Updated May 16, 2024
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Intent can be defined as a guiding motive. Criminal intent, therefore, refers to an unlawful guiding motive. When someone commits an act that is driven by unlawful motives, he is usually guilty of a crime. It is possible, however, for someone to commit the same act, but due to lack of criminal intent, be deemed innocent.

In law there is a Latin term, mens rea, which refers to a guilty mind. Mens rea is very important in criminal law because when a crime is outlined, a person’s mental state is usually considered. As a result, a person’s mental state plays a role in whether or not he can be convicted of a particular crime. Criminal intent is one of the reasons it is important for law enforcement officials to work so hard to establish the motive of crimes.

For example, a person cannot generally be convicted of first degree murder if it can be proven that he accidentally killed someone. The reason for this is because the definition of first degree murder generally includes language that declares the killing must include malice. Malice can be defined as evil intent, which will be lacking if the cause of death is accidental.

Another issue that can be raised during the assessment of criminal intent is mental capacity. People who are deemed insane when they commit crimes often escape punishment despite the fact they committed actions that a government has deemed unlawful. Instead, they may be ordered to receive treatment. The reason for this is because it is commonly viewed as unjust to punish a person for actions that he was unable to determine were wrong.

Even when there is criminal intent, most courts recognize that it exists to varying degrees. There is, for example, spontaneous criminal intent, which can be witnessed during crimes of passion. In these instances a person is overcome by an emotion such as anger and commits a criminal act without stopping to plan it. Then, there are premeditated crimes. These involve an individual whose intentions are part of a plan, and in most cases, that plan includes a way to avoid prosecution.

The type of criminal intent that drives premeditated crimes often leads to offenders receiving harsher punishments. The reason for this is that such mentality is considered to present a greater amount of public danger. It shows that even when a person has time to consider his actions, instead of convincing himself to do the right thing, he will choose to break the law.

It is important to note that the conviction of some crimes do not require criminal intent. A good example is vehicular crimes. A person does not generally get into a car intending to drive with a blown out headlight. However, she can still be found guilty and made to pay a fine.

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