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What is Criminal Intent – Actus Reus & Mens Rea?

Cite this article as: Jason Mance Gordon, "What is Criminal Intent – Actus Reus & Mens Rea?," in The Business Professor, updated January 5, 2015, last accessed April 7, 2020, https://thebusinessprofessor.com/knowledge-base/what-is-criminal-intent/.
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Criminal Intent
This video explains Criminal Intent - Actus Reus and Mens Rea.

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What are the elements of a crime – Criminal Intent?

Every crime is composed of certain elements. Common among all crimes are the physical and mental characteristics of the defendant in failing to comply with the criminal law.

Actus ReusActus Reus is a latin phrase meaning, “guilty act”. This element simply means that the individual committed the act proscribed by the statute. In some cases a threat to act or a failure to act constitutes the crime. In any event, the defendant must be responsible for that action or inaction.

  • Example: If an individual is involuntarily intoxicated, this may negate the actus reus. If someone slips drugs in a person’s drink unknowingly, it may excuse the voluntary act required to find a person guilty of a criminal offense. That is, she may not have the control over her physical actions necessary to satisfy the actus reas. The act of voluntary intoxication, however, will not excuse the actus reas. Voluntarily drinking or taking medications is a sufficient act.

Mens ReaMens rea is a latin phrase meaning a “guilty mind”. This generally means that there must be some mental intent to commit the act that is wrongful under the law.

“General intent” crimes simply require that the individual intend to do the act that constitutes a crime, without specific intent as to the results of the harmful action.

  • Criminal Negligence – If an actor intends a physical act that is negligent under the circumstances, she may be criminally liable for the harm resulting from the action. Generally, the action must pose a foreseeable risk of harm and the actor’s failure to observe due care brings about that harm.
    • Example: Bob is driving while texting on his phone. He takes his eyes off of the road and accidentally strikes a pedestrian who is killed. In this instance, he may be criminally negligent.
  • Strict Liability Crimes – This type of crime  does not require a defendant’s mens rea. That is, if an individual undertakes an action, regardless of whether there was intent, she is criminally liable.
    • Example: An individual who has sexual intercourse with someone under the legal age of consent may be convicted of statutory rape. It does not matter if the defendant believed that the other person was above the legal age of consent. A strict liability crime looks solely at the action and not the intent of the parties.

“Specific intent” crimes require that the individual have the intent to achieve that harmful result or be indifferent or reckless with regard to the probable results of her conduct. The specific intent requirement is generally satisfied if the defendant acts recklessly with regard to the potential harm that could result from her actions or inactions.

Intentional Crime – The actor intends the physical act and the likely result of that act constituting a crime.

  • Example: Tom intentionally provides false information to a bank when applying for a line of credit. When the bank learns of the false information, it presses charges against Tom for fraud. If Tom is able to demonstrate that he did not know that the information was false, it will negate the specific intent required for a charge of fraud.

Criminal Recklessness – An actor may be criminally liable for undertaking an action without regard for the potential harm to persons or property. Generally, the actor must understand the substantial risk and consciously disregard it.

  • Example: Merrick is anxious to try out his new bow and arrow. He walks outside and fires an arrow straight up into the air. Merrick lives in the city and the area is densely populated. He knows that it is a substantial risk that the arrow will strike someone, but he disregards this risk. He will likely be criminally reckless if that arrow strikes someone.

In some instances, a guilty act may constitute more than one crime. This may be the case when one crime is a “lesser-included offense” of another crime. That is, less than all of the elements required for one crime may meet all of the elements of another crime. For example, theft may be a lesser-included crime of burglary. A general intent crime may be a lesser-included offense of a specific intent crime.

Discussion: Do you think the mental element of a crime is important? If a person causes harm without intent, is there less reason to subject that individual to criminal punishment?

Discussion Input

  • The mental element of a crime is usually considered to be important in the context of criminal liability. For example, someone who trips and accidentally knocks someone down causing them to sustain injuries is unlikely to be criminally charged or found guilty of assault or battery while someone who purposely pushes someone down is more likely to be criminal charged and convicted. (However, if significant injuries are sustained in the fall, both are likely to be sued in civil court to recover for monetary civil damages, such as medical bills.) This is because the deterrent and punitive purposes of criminal punishment are not served by punishing those who did not mean to commit crimes. However, some crimes are considered so serious and damaging that the mental element is considered irrelevant, especially if the person should have known that harm could result from their actions (or lack thereof).

Practice Question: Donald is driving down the road listening to his favorite heavy metal songs. He gets so excited that he does not realize that he is traveling 20 mph over the speed limit. A police officer witnesses the speeding, stops Donald’s car, and issues him a citation. Donald goes home and looks up the citation under state law. The statute indicates that speeding is a strict liability crime. What does this mean for Donald? Does it matter that Donald’s excessive speed was accidental? Would it matter if Donald were temporarily disoriented when driving due to a carbon monoxide leak in his car that caused him to lose the ability to effectively control his automobile?

Proposed Answer

  • To be found guilty of a strict liability crime, one only has to prove that the defendant undertook a criminal action, even if they did not intend to commit a crime (mens rea). Since speeding is a strict liability crime in Donald’s state, the accidental nature of his speeding is irrelevant and he will be found criminally liable if the officer can show that he was speeding. However, if Donald’s speeding was the result of temporary disorientation due to a carbon monoxide leak, he may have a defense to even a strict liability crime since he was involuntarily not in control of his actions (actus rea). However, if the carbon monoxide leak was known to Donald prior to his operating the vehicle or resulted from his negligent vehicle maintenance, his recklessness (driving a car with a known leak) or negligence (failure to maintain the car) may undermine his defense.

Academic Research

Child, John, Teaching the Elements of Crimes (2017). The Teaching of Criminal Law, Routledge, 2017 Forthcoming. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2836660

Robinson, Paul H. and Grall, Jane A., Element Analysis in Defining Criminal Liability: The Model Penal Code and Beyond. Stanford Law Review, Vol. 35, pp. 681-762, 1983. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=662025

Murphy, Jeffrie G., Involuntary Acts and Criminal Liability (1971). Ethics, Vol. 81, p. 332, 1971. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1469732

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