Why the Mind Matters
We've all heard of criminal intent. But what does it mean, and why does it matter? In many cases, you must have intent to commit a crime to be found guilty of it. People who attempt to commit a crime can be charged with it even if they were not successful as long as they had intent. Likewise, someone who accidentally harmed someone is not guilty unless he or she intended to do that harm. Criminal intent is very important and often a pivotal point in criminal cases.
What Is Criminal Intent?
The Supreme Court established intent as what distinguishes criminal conduct and innocent conduct, so the prosecution must prove the defendant had intent and knowingly committed or attempted to commit the crime. One must have knowledge of his or her misconduct to be guilty of a crime but does not necessarily need to know the misconduct was illegal. Now that you know what criminal intent means, let's take a look at how intent can affect a criminal defense.
How Criminal Intent Affects Cases
The prosecuting attorney must establish mens rea—or a guilty mind—to convict a defendant in many criminal prosecutions. In some cases, it is self-evident. In others, for example, domestic violence cases involving self-defense, the prosecution must prove it by meeting a certain legal standard called the burden of proof. The legal concept of criminal intent is important because people can—and do—unknowingly commit crimes.
For example, it is illegal to aid someone in committing a crime. If you knowingly and willingly provided information that helped someone commit a crime—like a burglary—you would be guilty of a crime. But if a friend asked you for that information and you didn't know it would help your friend commit a crime, you would not be guilty.
A Small but Important Impact
This small distinguishing factor has a huge impact on criminal cases. Not surprisingly, some criminal cases go to trial over this very issue. Naturally, it is difficult to prove what was going through someone's mind when they committed a crime. There are two types of intent: specific and general. Specific intent is the intent to carry out an action with a specific result in mind. General intent is the intent to engage in conduct but without a specific intended result in mind. Prosecuting attorneys will typically try to use circumstantial evidence to prove intent, as direct evidence (i.e. an admission of guilt) is rare. They must prove intent beyond a reasonable doubt, which can be difficult to do. Proving someone engaged in criminal conduct with a specific result in mind can be harder to do than proving someone engaged in criminal conduct.
Where's the Evidence of Intent?
Evidence commonly used to prove intent include communications such as emails, texts, social media posts, legally recorded conversations, and call logs. The prosecution may also try to paint a picture of the defendant's general character to link their conduct when they committed the crime with their typical character. Circumstantial evidence paired with a clear image of the defendant's general character can be enough to sway a jury. As you can see, criminal intent is a crucial element in most criminal prosecutions. It is also hard to prove and requires different types of evidence that support the argument for intent.
Facing criminal charges is never easy, especially if you did not intend to commit a crime. If you are facing criminal charges and want to learn about your rights, speak with an experienced California criminal defense attorney. It helps to learn more about the specific elements in your case that must be proven. If you did not have criminal intent, for example, but were charged with a crime, an attorney might be able to argue you lacked intent and thus did not knowingly or willingly commit a crime. But as every criminal case is different, only by speaking with an attorney about your case can you get a better idea of what you are up against and your options for handling your case.
Being accused of a crime is stressful, but experienced Visalia area criminal defense attorney Christopher Martens can help you face your charges. At The Law Offices of Christopher Martens, we can help you navigate the criminal prosecution process from start to finish. Martens has practiced criminal defense for over ten years and knows how to defend your rights. Contact our Visalia or Hanford offices at 559-967-7386 or email us at [email protected] to discuss a possible plan of action for your case.