When proving any sort of criminal offense, a court must generally prove the following two elements:
- That the defendant physically committed the act in question. An example of this would be how if a defendant is facing a battery charge, the prosecution must prove that the accused actually unlawfully touched another person; and
- The prosecution must prove that the person acted with the corresponding criminal intent in order for the act to constitute a crime.
Criminal intent refers to the person’s mind state and motivations that may be associated with the physical acts. There are different types of criminal intent, largely depending on the type of crime committed. An example of this would be how with a theft crime, the prosecution must prove that the defendant intended to permanently deprive someone else of the object, and had not simply picked it up by accident.
Criminal intent may also be classified into two different categories: general intent and specific intent. Most crimes are classified as either one of these categories; however, some crimes require that the prosecution prove both types of intent. Generally speaking, it is more difficult to prove specific intent crimes compared to general intent crimes. These differences are further discussed below.
What Is The Difference Between Criminal Intent And General Intent?
To reiterate, in the context of a criminal law case, intent is most commonly defined as the connection between a defendant’s state of mind and the physical act of committing the crime with which they were charged. One of the defining differences between specific and general intent crimes would be that specific intent crimes are generally more difficult to prove than general intent crimes.
This is partly due to the fact that specific intent crimes will require a prosecutor to prove that a defendant had both the desire to commit the act, as well as the knowledge or intent that committing the act would achieve the end result. Alternatively, a general intent crime will only require a prosecutor to prove that the defendant had intended to perform the act in question, and that the act is one that is prohibited by law. What this means is that you can be charged and convicted of a general intent crime simply by committing an act that is considered to be both illegal and a crime under the law.
Once again, the defining distinction between general and specific intent is associated with the person’s motivation at the time of the crime. Specific intent requires that the person had a subjective desire or knowledge that their actions would bring about illegal conduct, while general intent crimes simply require that the person intended to perform the act in question.
What Are Some Common Examples Of General Intent Crimes?
To reiterate, a general intent crime will only require a prosecutor to prove that the defendant intended to carry out the act that is associated with the crime. Meaning, they will not need to prove that the defendant had any additional motives, intentions, or purposes as they would need to do when proving a specific intent crime.
Another way of saying it is that only the intended actions of the defendant matter for a general intent crime, and not the end results of their action. As such, general intent crimes are generally easier to prove than specific intent crimes because the prosecutor will not need to show that a defendant has specific motive. They must only show that the defendant had the intent to commit an act that is also considered to be a crime under the law. Additionally, the defendant does not necessarily need to have to know that the act is illegal.
A general intent crime requires no further proof of a mental state than beyond a willingness to commit the act. This is why most state statutes will only describe the act itself, and will not describe an intent to commit the crime. An example of this would be how when proving the crime of battery, the prosecutor will not be required to show that a defendant intentionally committed battery. Rather, they only need to show that a defendant unlawfully used force against another person, and that that resulted in offensive touching or bodily harm.
It is important to note that the defendant can still be charged and convicted of battery, even if they had no intentions of touching that person. Conversely, a prosecutor will not need to show that a defendant intended to touch them.
Some specific examples of criminal acts that are generally considered to be general intent crimes include the following:
- Involuntary manslaughter;
- False imprisonment; and
- Driving under the influence, or a DUI, or similar driving crime.
Some states also categorize certain property crimes as general intent crimes in their state criminal codes. While the act itself provides the basis of a defendant’s guilt, the prosecutor must be able to prove that a defendant committed the crime according to the standard of beyond a reasonable doubt.
Are There Any Defenses For General Intent Crimes?
As was previously discussed, it is considerably more difficult for a prosecutor to prove the elements of a specific intent crime than it is to prove the elements of a general intent crime. In addition to proving that a defendant both wanted to commit the act and intended to accomplish the end result of the act, the prosecutor will also need to prove every single element of a crime that is listed in the state statute.
What this means is that if a prosecutor fails to prove that a defendant did not possess the requisite specific intent or knowledge in order to commit the crime, the defendant will most likely not be convicted.
Additionally, there are considerably more legal defenses available to defendants who commit specific intent crimes when compared to those available for committing a general intent crime. An example of this would be how if the person is incapacitated due to intoxication, that fact could serve as a defense. However, the intoxication must have occurred involuntarily, such as when they ingested a substance not knowing that it was in fact a different drug. Another example would be if someone slipped a substance into their drink.
Conditions of duress and/or coercion may also serve as a defense. An example of this would be if an aggressor forces the defendant to injure a person, or else their loved one will be kidnapped if they do not comply.
A mistake of fact can also serve as a defense for a general intent crime; however, the mistake must be a reasonable one, and must be associated with facts of the situation and not the law. What this means is that it is almost never a complete defense to state that a person was not aware of a specific law, but it may be exculpatory.
Do I Need A Lawyer For Help With General Intent Crimes?
If you are facing charges for a general intent crime, it is essential that you work with a lawyer. Under criminal law, you are entitled to be represented by a criminal attorney.
Your criminal defense lawyer can help you understand your legal rights and options according to your state’s specific laws, and will also be able to represent you in court, as needed.