Understanding Crimes of Intent

When a criminal lawyer considers ways to respond to charges against a client, they look at how intent factors into the allegations. In criminal law, many offenses, although not all of them, require some degree of intent. Take a look at how criminal intent is viewed by the law and what that might mean for your case.

Specific vs. General Intent

Intent comes in two common forms. Specific intent refers to crimes where the defendant had to mean for what happened to occur. For example, most states' first-degree murder statutes include a requirement for intent to cause the death of the victim. This means that a jury should not convict the defendant if there are any questions about their intentions with regard to killing the individual. Such a distinction helps jurors understand what makes an offense such as manslaughter different from murder.

Some states also use a standard above specific intent that's known as malice aforethought. This usually entails planning to do the crime, and it's usually reserved for serious crimes like rape and murder.

General intent crimes don't require such high levels of specificity. For example, someone could be convicted of assault just because their actions were knowingly done and meant to be harmful. A person might take a swing in a bar fight and miss. That person can be charged with assault regardless of how much thought went into the action. 

Crimes Lacking Intent

A handful of crimes do not require intent. A big example is a statutory rape. Even if someone believed in good faith that they were having sex with an adult, most states still charge statutory rape regardless of the circumstances. For example, if the state can show the alleged victim was not of the age of consent at the time of the offense, that's the end of the discussion. 

The Burden of Proof

Notably, a prosecutor who elects to charge a crime of intent takes on a bigger burden of proof. This is why it's normal in some cases for a criminal lawyer to negotiate with the prosecution to plead the defendant down to a lesser charge. Both sides may know the case is airtight on general intent while a little iffy on specific intent.

A criminal lawyer will have the opportunity to demand discovery of any evidence the prosecution has. This means you'll be able to see, for example, if the prosecutor has cellphone records showing you expressing intent. You can then decide whether you want to keep pushing for dismissal or trial.

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