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Criminal Intent and Honest Mistakes

Criminal Law Blog by The Law Office of Greg Tsioros

Criminal Intent and Honest Mistakes

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In order to convict someone of a criminal offense, it is necessary to establish the fact that the crime was committed intentionally. From a legal perspective, criminal intent is the desire of a person to commit an illegal action. If a person wishes to do something that is against the law and then follows through on that intention, they may be subject to arrest, prosecution and conviction.

On the other hand, it is possible for a person to commit an illegal action without intending to do so. While this does not mean that such a person will avoid all consequences, they may face less severe consequences.

What Is Mens Rea?

“Mens rea” is a Latin phrase which translates to “guilty mind”. It is a legal concept that is used to refer to the intentions of a person who broke the law. In order to convict someone of a crime, the prosecution must prove two points:

  • That the defendant actually committed a crime
  • That the defendant committed the crime intentionally

It may be helpful to consider an example of criminal intent. Suppose that Alice is using her rifle for target practice on her property. One of her shots ricochets into her neighbor’s yard and strikes her neighbor in the head, killing him. Alice may be charged with recklessly discharging a firearm and even manslaughter but it is not likely that she will be charged with murder.

However, if Alice tells several people that she hates her neighbor and threatens to kill him, she may be investigated for murder even if she claims her neighbor’s death was the result of an accidental ricochet. This is because Alice’s comments and threats indicate that she has criminal intent.

Levels of Intent

Different levels of criminal intent are used to issue convictions for different offenses. This is because certain offenses have a type of intent requirement. For example, in order to convict someone of murder, evidence must be introduced to prove a definite level of intent. This is why a person who accidentally strikes a pedestrian with their car, resulting in the pedestrian’s death, may be charged for manslaughter instead of murder.

The levels of intent include:

  • Malice aforethought/premeditation
  • Intentional
  • Reckless
  • Knowing
  • Liability

Malice aforethought and premeditation are usually used to convict a defendant of capital, or first-degree, murder. Committing a crime with malice aforethought or premeditation means that the defendant decided to commit a crime, planned their actions and then carried out the crime.

An intentional criminal action is one that is committed with purpose but not necessarily planning or premeditation. This level of intent may describe a person who acts “in the heat of the moment.” A person can intentionally assault another person in the middle of an angry argument without planning to commit assault beforehand.

Reckless actions may result in dire consequences, even if a person has no plans or intentions to cause any harm. A driver who speeds through intersections and swerves across lanes may cause a wreck that kills another driver. This may lead to vehicular homicide charges because the reckless driver disregarded the safety of others and traffic laws.

A knowing level of criminal intent means that a person intentionally engaged in behavior that a reasonable person would be able to identify as potentially dangerous or criminal. For example, a person who fires a gun randomly into the air should reasonably know that their actions could potentially harm another person, even if they do not intend to do harm.

Some crimes only require proof that an illegal action occurred in order to issue a conviction. This means that a person can be liable for an offense even if they didn’t mean to break the law. A person who sells tobacco products to a minor may be held liable for a criminal offense even if they honestly believed that the customer was over the age of 18.

Honest Mistakes

The law allows some leniency for people who make honest mistakes. For example, a driver who strikes a pedestrian may not necessarily face criminal charges if recklessness or criminal intent cannot be proven. In such a case, the driver may face civil liability or a civil suit but may not face criminal prosecution. However, claiming a lack of intent is not a solid defense in some cases. For example, a driver who causes a car wreck while intoxicated cannot claim that they did not intend to get drunk as a defense.

Levels of intent play a big role in criminal cases. If the prosecution cannot prove that a defendant acted with the level of criminal intent required for a conviction, the charges may be reduced. Consulting with an attorney is the best way to learn how criminal intent applies to a particular case.

If you’ve been accused of a crime you did not commit, contact the The Law Office of Greg Tsiros for experienced criminal defense.

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