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Crimes are made up of parts, referred to as elements. The criminal elements are criminal act or actus reus, criminal intent or mens rea, concurrence, causation, harm, and attendant circumstances. Only crimes that specify a bad result require the causation and harm elements.
Criminal acts must be voluntary or controllable and cannot consist solely of the defendant’s status or thoughts. Just one voluntary act is needed for a crime, so if a voluntary act is followed by an involuntary act, the defendant can still be criminally responsible. Omission or failure to act can also be criminal if there is a duty to act based on a statute, contract, or special relationship. Possession is passive, but it can still be a criminal act. The most common items that are criminal to possess are illegal contraband, drugs, and weapons. Possession can be actual if the item is on or very near the defendant’s person, or constructive if within an area of the defendant’s control, like inside the defendant’s house or vehicle. More than one defendant can be in possession of one item. Criminal possession should be supported by the intent of awareness because it is passive.
Criminal intent is an important element because it is often one factor considered in the grading of criminal offenses. The three common-law criminal intents are malice aforethought, which is intent to kill, specific intent, and general intent. Specific intent is the intent to bring about a particular result, a higher level of awareness than is required to perform the criminal act, or scienter, which is knowledge that a criminal act is unlawful. General intent is the intent to do the act and can often give rise to an inference of criminal intent from proof of the criminal act. Motive should not be confused with or replace intent. Motive is the reason the defendant develops criminal intent.
The Model Penal Code describes four criminal states of mind, which are purposely, knowingly, recklessly, and negligently. Purposely is similar to specific intent to cause a particular result. Knowingly is awareness that results are practically certain to occur. Recklessly is a subjective awareness of a risk of harm and an objective and unjustified disregard of that risk. Negligently is not being aware of a substantial risk of harm when a reasonable person would be. Offense elements, including specified attendant circumstances, may require different mental states. If so, the prosecution must prove each mental state for every element beyond a reasonable doubt.
Strict liability crimes do not require an intent element and are generally malum prohibitum, with a less severe punishment. Transferred intent is a legal fiction that transfers a defendant’s criminal intent to an unintended victim for the purpose of fairness. Pursuant to transferred intent, the defendant may be responsible for two crimes: attempt and the completed crime, depending on the circumstances. Vicarious liability transfers a defendant’s criminal liability to a different defendant based on a special relationship. Corporate liability is a type of vicarious liability that holds a corporation responsible for crimes apart from its owners, agents, and employees. Concurrence is also a criminal element that requires the criminal act and criminal intent exist at the same moment.
When the crime requires a bad result, the defendant must cause the harm. The defendant must be the factual and legal cause. Factual cause means that the defendant starts the chain of events that leads to the bad result. Legal or proximate cause means that it is objectively foreseeable that the end result will occur when the defendant commits the criminal act. An intervening superseding cause breaks the chain of events started by the defendant’s criminal act and insulates the defendant from criminal liability. When the intervening superseding cause is an individual, the intervening individual is criminally responsible for the crime. Some states have rules that protect the defendant from criminal responsibility for homicide when the victim lives a long time after the criminal act. These death timeline rules require the victim to die within one or three years and a day from the defendant’s criminal act and are becoming increasingly unpopular. Many states have abolished death timeline rules in favor of ordinary principles of legal causation.
Read the prompt, review the case, and then decide whether the issue is the defendant’s criminal act or criminal intent. Check your answers using the answer key at the end of the chapter.