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In
criminal law Criminal law is the body of law Law is a system A system is a group of Interaction, interacting or interrelated elements that act according to a set of rules to form a unified whole. A system, surrounded and influenced by its env ...
, intent is a subjective state of mind that must accompany the acts of certain crimes to constitute a violation. A more formal, generally synonymous legal term is
scienter ''Scienter'' is a legal term for intent Intention is a mental state that represents a commitment to carrying out an action or actions in the future The future is the time Time is the indefinite continued sequence, progress of existence a ...
: intent or knowledge of wrongdoing.


Definitions

Intent is defined in English law by the ruling in ''R v Mohan'' 976QB 1 as "the decision to bring about a prohibited consequence". A range of words represents shades of ''intent'' in criminal laws around the world. The mental element, or ''
mens rea ''Mens rea'' (; Law LatinLaw Latin, sometimes written L.L. or L. Lat., and sometimes derisively called Dog Latin Dog Latin, also known as Cod Latin, macaronic Latin, mock Latin, or Canis Latinicus, refers to the creation of a phrase In everyd ...
'', of
murder Murder is the of another without or valid , especially the unlawful killing of another human with . ("The killing of another person without justification or excuse, especially the crime of killing a person with malice aforethought or with ...

murder
, for example, is traditionally expressed as
malice aforethought Malice aforethought is the "premeditation" or "predetermination" (with malice) required as an element of some crime In ordinary language, a crime is an unlawful act punishable by a state or other authority. The term ''crime'' does not, in ...
, and the interpretations of malice, "maliciously" and "willful" vary between pure intent and recklessness or
negligence Negligence (Lat. ''negligentia'') is a failure to exercise appropriate and/or ethical ruled care expected to be exercised amongst specified circumstances. The area of tort A tort, in common law In law, common law (also known as judicial ...
, depending on the
jurisdiction Jurisdiction (from Latin Latin (, or , ) is a classical language A classical language is a language A language is a structured system of communication Communication (from Latin ''communicare'', meaning "to share" or "to be i ...
in which the crime was committed and the seriousness of the offence. The intent element of a crime, such as intent to kill, may exist without a malicious motive, or even with a benevolent motive, such as in the case of
euthanasia Euthanasia (from el, εὐθανασία 'good death': εὖ, ''eu'' 'well, good' + θάνατος, ''thanatos'' 'death') is the practice of intentionally ending life to relieve pain and suffering. Different countries have different Legality ...

euthanasia
. A person ''intends'' a consequence when they 1) ''foresee'' that it will happen if their given series of acts or omissions continue, and 2) ''desire'' it to happen. The most serious level of
culpability Culpability, or being culpable, is a measure of the degree to which an agent, such as a person, can be held morally or legally Law is a system of rules created and law enforcement, enforced through social or governmental institutions to reg ...
, justifying the most serious levels of
punishment Punishment, commonly, is the imposition of an undesirable or unpleasant outcome upon a group or individual, meted out by an authority In the fields of sociology Sociology is the study of society, human social behaviour, patterns of soci ...

punishment
, is achieved when both these components are actually present in the accused's mind (a "subjective" test). A person who plans and executes a crime is considered, rightly or wrongly, a more serious danger to the public than one who acts spontaneously (perhaps because they are less likely to get caught), whether out of the sudden opportunity to steal, or out of anger to injure another. But intent can also come from the common law viewpoint as well.


The test of intent

The policy issue for those who administer the criminal justice system is that, when planning their actions, people may be aware of many probable and possible consequences. So the decision to continue with the current plan means that all the foreseen consequences are to some extent ''intentional'', i.e. within and not against the scope of each person's intent. For example, A, a jealous wife, discovers that her husband is having a sexual affair with B. Wishing only to drive B away from the neighbourhood, she goes to B's house one night, pours petrol on and sets fire to the front door. B dies in the resulting fire. A is shocked and horrified. It did not occur to her that B might be physically in danger and there was no conscious plan in her mind to injure B when the fire began. But when A's behaviour is analysed, B's death must be intentional. If A had genuinely wished to avoid any possibility of injury to B, she would not have started the fire. Or, if verbally warning B to leave was not an option, she should have waited until B was seen to leave the house before starting the fire. As it was, she waited until night when it was more likely that B would be at home and there would be fewer people around to raise the alarm. Whereas intent would be less if A had set fire to the house during the day after ringing the doorbell to check no one was home and then immediately ringing the fire brigade to report the fire. On a purely subjective basis, A intended to render B's house uninhabitable, so a reasonably substantial fire was required. The
reasonable person In law, a reasonable person, reasonable man, or the man on the Clapham omnibus The man on the Clapham omnibus is a hypothetical ordinary and reasonable person, used by the courts in English law English law is the common law List of natio ...
would have foreseen a probability that people would be exposed to the risk of injury. Anyone in the house, neighbours, people passing by, and members of the
fire service A fire department (American English) or fire brigade (British English), also known as a fire authority, fire rescue, fire district, fire & rescue, or fire service in some areas, is an organization that provides firefighting services. In some ar ...
would all be in danger. The court therefore assesses the degree of probability that B or any other person might be in the house at that time of the night. The more certain the reasonable person would have been, the more justifiable it is to impute sufficient desire to convert what would otherwise only have been recklessness into intent to constitute the offence of murder. But if the degree of probability is lower, the court finds only recklessness proved. Some states once had a rule of
felony murder The rule of felony murder is a legal doctrine Doctrine (from la, doctrina, meaning "teaching, instruction") is a codification of beliefs or a body of teachings or instructions, taught principles or positions, as the essence of teachings i ...
: a death that occurred during commission of a
felony A felony is traditionally considered a crime of high seriousness Seriousness (noun; adjective: ''serious'') is an attitude of gravitas, gravity, :wikt:solemnity, solemnity, persistence, and :wikt:earnest, earnestness toward something considered t ...
automatically imputed sufficient ''mens rea'' for murder. This rule has been mostly abolished, and direct evidence of the required mental components is now required. Thus, the courts of most states use a hybrid test of intent, combining both subjective and objective elements, for each offence changed. For
intention in English law In English criminal law Criminal law is the body of law that relates to crime. It proscribes conduct perceived as threatening, harmful, or otherwise endangering to the property Property (''latin: Res Privata'') in the Abstract and concre ...
, section 8 of the Criminal Justice Act 1967 provides the frame in which the ''mens rea'' is assessed. It states: Under s8(b) therefore, the jury is allowed a wide latitude in applying a hybrid test to impute intent or foresight (for the purposes of recklessness) on the basis of all the evidence. The United States Supreme Court held in '' Elonis v. United States'' that negligence is not sufficient to show intent, but did not rule on the question of recklessness.


Offences of basic and of specific intent

In some states, a distinction is made between an offence of ''basic'' (sometimes termed "general") intent and an offence of ''specific intent''. At times a forensic psychiatric examination may be helpful in ascertaining the presence or absence of ''mens rea'' in crimes which require ''specific intent''.


Direct intent and oblique intent

Direct intent: a person has direct intent when they intend a particular consequence of their act. Oblique intent: the person has oblique intent when the event is a natural consequence of a voluntary act and they foresee it as such. The 'natural consequence' definition was replaced in ''R v Woollin'' with the 'virtually certain' test. A person is now held to intend a consequence (obliquely) when that consequence is a virtually certain consequence of their action, ''and'' they knew it to be a virtually certain consequence. The first leg of this test has been condemned as unnecessary: a person should be held as intending a consequence if they believed it to be a virtually certain consequence, regardless of whether it was in fact virtually certain. This has two applications: #When a person is planning to achieve a given consequence, there may be several intermediate steps that have to be taken before the full result as desired is achieved. It is not open to the accused to pick and choose which of these steps are or are not intended. The accused is taken to intend to accomplish all outcomes necessary to the overall plan. For example, if A wishes to claim on B's
life insurance Life insurance (or life assurance, especially in the Commonwealth of Nations The Commonwealth of Nations, generally known simply as the Commonwealth, is a political association of 54 member states, almost all of which are former territorie ...
policy, and so shoots at B who is sitting in a bus, the bullet may have to pass through a window. Thus, even though A may not have desired B's death, it was an inevitable precondition to a claim. Similarly, he may never consciously have considered the damage to the window, but both the
murder Murder is the of another without or valid , especially the unlawful killing of another human with . ("The killing of another person without justification or excuse, especially the crime of killing a person with malice aforethought or with ...

murder
and the damage under the
Criminal Damage Act 1971 Criminal damage in English law was originally a common law offence. The offence was largely concerned with the protection of dwellings and the food supply, and few sanctions were imposed for damaging personal property. Liability was originally ...
are intended. This is distinguishing between the ''direct'' intent, which is the main aim of the plan—and the ''oblique'' intent, which covers all intermediate steps. More generally, someone directly intends a consequence when their purpose or aim is to cause it, even though they believe the likelihood of success is remote. In ''R v Dadson'', for example, the defendant shot at a man he wrongly believed was out of range. In ''R v Mohan'', the court held that direct intent means, "aim or purpose"—"a decision to bring about, insofar as it lies within the accused's power, the commission of the offence ... no matter whether the accused desired that consequence of his act or not". #Sometimes, by accident, a plan miscarries and the accused achieves one or more
unintended consequence In the social sciences Social science is the Branches of science, branch of science devoted to the study of society, societies and the Social relation, relationships among individuals within those societies. The term was formerly used to ...
s. In this situation, the accused is taken to have intended all of the additional consequences that flow naturally from the original plan. This is tested as matters of causation and
concurrence In Western Western may refer to: Places *Western, Nebraska, a village in the US *Western, New York, a town in the US *Western Creek, Tasmania, a locality in Australia *Western Junction, Tasmania, a locality in Australia *Western world, co ...
, i.e. whether the given consequences were reasonably foreseeable, there is no ''
novus actus interveniens Breaking the chain (or ''novus actus interveniens'', literally ''new intervening act'') refers in English law to the idea that Causality, causal connections are deemed to finish. Even if the defendant can be shown to have acted negligently, there w ...
'' and the relevant ''mens rea'' elements were formed before all of the ''actus reus'' components were completed.


Unconditional intent and conditional intent

Unconditional intent: a person's expected result from the consequence of their actions. Conditional intent: a person's expected result only when a condition diverts the person from their unconditional intent. For example, a couple is planning to have an outdoor wedding, but also reserve an indoor facility in the unlikely condition of bad weather. The unconditional intent is to have the wedding outside. The conditional intent is to have the wedding inside on the condition of bad weather. In '' Holloway v. United States'', the
United States Supreme Court The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) is the highest court in the Federal judiciary of the United States, federal judiciary of the United States of America. It has ultimate and largely Procedures of the Supreme Court of the United ...

United States Supreme Court
held that the word 'intent' within a federal statute could mean either a person’s "unconditional intent", "conditional intent" or both depending on context and the congressional purpose of the statute. Holloway was charged and convicted with the federal crime of
carjacking Carjacking is a robbery Robbery is the crime In ordinary language, a crime is an unlawful act punishable by a state State may refer to: Arts, entertainment, and media Literature * ''State Magazine'', a monthly magazine published b ...
"with the intent to cause death or serious bodily harm". Holloway admitted to carjacking at gunpoint but argued he only intended to use his weapon "if any of the drivers had given him a hard time". The unconditional intent was to carjack without harm to the driver. The conditional intent was to carjack and cause harm to the driver if the driver became uncooperative. The issue of this case was whether the statute's phrase "with the intent to cause death or serious bodily harm" applies to a defendant's unconditional intent or conditional intent. The Court found that although the construction of the phrase suggests that
Congress Congresses are formal meetings of the representatives of different countries A country is a distinct territorial body or political entity A polity is an identifiable political entity—any group of people who have a collective identity, ...

Congress
meant to provide "a federal penalty for only those carjackings in which the offender actually attempted to harm or kill the driver ... that a commonsense reading of the carjacking statute counsels that Congress intended to criminalize a broader scope of conduct than attempts to assault or kill in the course of automobile robberies". The Court, therefore, affirmed Holloway's conviction and held that a defendant's conditional intent may be an element of a federal crime depending on the context and purpose of the statute.


Purpose intent and knowledge intent

In many situations in the United States, a person is considered to have acted with intent if the definitions of purpose or knowledge are satisfied. In other situations (especially regarding specific intent crimes that have "with intent to" in their definition), intent may be considered to refer to purpose only. Arguably, the most influential legal definitions of purpose and knowledge come from the Model Penal Code's definitions of mens rea.


See also

*
Scienter ''Scienter'' is a legal term for intent Intention is a mental state that represents a commitment to carrying out an action or actions in the future The future is the time Time is the indefinite continued sequence, progress of existence a ...
*
Collective intentionality In the philosophy of mind Philosophy of mind is a branch of that studies the and nature of the and its relationship with the body. The is a paradigmatic issue in philosophy of mind, although a number of other issues are addressed, such as t ...
*
Negligence Negligence (Lat. ''negligentia'') is a failure to exercise appropriate and/or ethical ruled care expected to be exercised amongst specified circumstances. The area of tort A tort, in common law In law, common law (also known as judicial ...

Negligence
*
Recklessness (law)In criminal law Criminal law is the body of law that relates to crime. It proscribes conduct perceived as threatening, harmful, or otherwise endangering to the property Property (''latin: Res Privata'') in the Abstract and concrete, abstrac ...
* Velleity * Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) - fictional sting operations - US legal case justified by Department of Justice as preventing crime but rejected due to question of intention


Footnotes


References

*Lacey. ''A Clear Concept of Intention: Elusive or Illusory'', (1993) 56 MLR 621. *Norrie. ''After Woollin'' (1999) CLR 532. *Williams, Glanville. ''Oblique Intention'', (1987) Cambridge Law Journal 417 {{Authority control Elements of crime Forensic psychology