CRIMINAL INTENT

INTENT

This post will answer the following questions on the legal concept of intent:

  • Legally speaking, what does it mean to have the necessary intent to commit a crime?
  • How do jurors determine a defendant’s intent?
  • What is specific intent?
  • What is general intent?
  • If conduct is legally determined to be “willful”, does this mean it was intentional?
  • Can intoxication or mental disease ever negate intent?
  • Is “wanton or reckless conduct” equivalent to intentional conduct?

Legally speaking, what does it mean to have the necessary intent to commit a crime?

For some crimes, the Commonwealth must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that at the time of the offense the defendant intended to do some action or commit the crime itself.

A person’s intent is considered to be his or her purpose or objective.

How do jurors determine a defendant’s intent?

A decision about a defendant’s intent requires jurors to assess the defendant’s state of mind at the time of the incident in question. It is obviously impossible for jurors to look directly into a person’s mind, but in everyday affairs people often must decide from the actions of others what their state of mind is, so therefore it is not a completely impossible task.

In determining intent jurors are obliged to examine a defendant’s actions or words, and all of the surrounding circumstances, to help them determine what the defendant’s intent was at the time of the incident.

Generally speaking, it is reasonable for jurors to infer that a person ordinarily intends the natural and probable consequences of any acts that he or she does intentionally. Jurors may draw such an inference unless there is evidence that convinces them otherwise.

In summary, jurors must examine all evidence and any reasonable inferences drawn from the evidence in determining whether the Commonwealth has proved beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant acted with the intent to do some action or commit the crime itself.  

What is specific intent?

There are two major subdivisions to the legal concept of intent: “specific intent”and “general intent”.

Specific intent is actual intent to perform some act, along WITH a wish for the consequences that result from that act.

Specific intent is a conscious act with the determination of the mind to do an act. It is considered to be a kind of contemplation, rather than reflection, that must precede the act.

In other words, specific intent is a person’s purpose or objective. It means that a defendant must only NOT ONLY have consciously intended to take certain actions, but that he or she also consciously intended certain consequences.

Specific intent is usually proved by circumstantial evidence (i.e. evidence that implies a person committed a crime), since there is no way to look directly into a person’s mind.

What is general intent?

There are two major subdivisions to the legal concept of intent: “specific intent”and “general intent”.

General intent is actual intent to perform some act, but WITHOUT a wish for the consequences that result from that act.

One way to describe general intent is whether the defendant intended the act to occur, as contrasted with an accident.

In determining whether the defendant acted “intentionally”, jurors are recommended to give the word its ordinary meaning: acting voluntarily and deliberately, and NOT because of accident or negligence.

It is not necessary that the defendant knew that he or she was breaking the law, but it is necessary that he or she intended the act to occur, which constitutes the offense.

Note that a judge can allow a jury to draw an inference that a person intends the natural and probable consequences of acts knowingly done. However, a judge cannot allow a jury to infer that a person is “presumed” to intend the natural and probable consequences of his or her acts, since this unconstitutionally shifts the burden of proof to the defense.

Also note that for a general intent crime, the judge is not required to charge on the defendant’s intent as if it were a separate element of the crime in question.

If conduct is legally determined to be “willful”, does this mean it was intentional?

The legal term “willful” was traditionally defined in the legal world as knowledge with an evil intentor “bad purpose”; however in more modern times, while it still means intentional (as opposed to accidental), it does not necessarily require that there be ill will or malevolence additionally involved.

Can intoxication or mental disease ever negate intent?

YES, in certain circumstances alcohol or drug intoxication, or a mental condition, may negate specific intent.

For information on the legal rules of intent when alcohol or drug intoxication or a mental condition are in question, see Intoxication With Alcohol or Drugs and/or Mental Impairment Short of Insanity.

Is “wanton or reckless conduct” equivalent to intentional conduct?

YES, “wanton or reckless conduct” is often legally considered equivalent to intentional conduct.

For more information on the legal rules of intent when assault and battery are in question, see Assault and Battery, Assault and Battery Causing Serious Injury, and/or Assault and Battery on a Police Officer or Public Employee.

IF YOU OR A LOVED ONE HAVE BEEN CHARGED WITH A CRIME, AND YOU NEED AN EXPERIENCED CRIMINAL DEFENSE LAWYER WORKING ON YOUR SIDE TO PROTECT YOUR RIGHTS, PLEASE CONTACT CRIMINAL DEFENSE ATTORNEY WILLIAM J. BARABINO.

 CALL 781-393-5900 TO LEARN MORE ABOUT YOUR AVAILABLE DEFENSES.

 

Source: Instruction 3.120

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