General Intent vs. Specific Intent

Intent crime

The difference between general intent and specific intent:

  • General intent – the defendant intended the conduct
  • Specific intent – the defendant intended the conduct and the result

For a specific intent crime, the mens rea will typically be written into the statute. Intentional and knowledge based crimes are considered specific intent crimes. Here is a (not exhaustive) list of specific intent crimes:

  1. Murder
  2. Attempt
  3. Conspiracy
  4. Solicitation (under modern statutes)
  5. Larceny
  6. False Imprisonment

Note: A specific intent crime cannot merge.

General intent crimes typically include crimes that are based on the defendant being reckless or negligence. Here is a (non exhaustive) list of general intent crimes:

  1. Manslaughter
  2. Negligent Homicide
  3. Solicitation (however, it is treated like a specific intent crime and modern statutes define it as a specific intent crime)
  4. Arson
  5. Rape


Mens Rea

A defendant must have a “guilty mind” or mens rea in order to be found guilty of a crime. Under the Common Law, the mens rea or the “guilty mind” was divided into four categories and the defendant’s mens rea must fall into one of these categories or else he cannot be guilty of an offense:

1.   Intentional – the defendant must have intended the conduct and the result of his conduct

  • Note: Transferred intent – if the defendant intended to kill A, and B jumps in front of him, the defendant’s intent to kill A transfers in his trial for the murder of B

2.   Knowledge – the defendant knew that the result was reasonably likely (focusing on the effect/result)

3.   Reckless –  willful and wanton (based on a reasonable person)

4.   Negligence – defendant did not exercise a standard of care that a reasonable person would have exercised in similar circumstances

The four categories above can be divided amongst specific intent crimes and general intent crimes:

  • Specific intent usually includes intentional and knowledge based crimes. For a specific intent crime, the mens rea will typically be written into the statute (i.e. intentionally)
  • General intent usually includes reckless and negligence based crimes. All that is required is that the defendant intended the conduct as opposed to the conduct and result.

The Modern Penal Code (MPC ) Section 2.02 tried to distinguish between the gray areas between the four categories by further defining Purposely in 2.02(2)(a), Knowingly in 2.02(2)(b), Recklessly in 2.02(2)(c), and Negligently in 2.02(2)(d). Here is the result of the changes:

1.   Purposely – essentially grouped conduct and result; looked at conduct and result as an either/or instead of and

2.   Knowingly – “high probability;” the focus is now on the conduct as well as the result;

3.   Reckless – “substantial and unjustifiable risk;” a conscious disregard that the result will occur (defendant does not know about the result); looks at the offense from the defendant’s (subjective) and reasonable person point of view

4.   Negligence – “should be aware;” objective standard that looks for justifiability


More Helpful Notes: Specific Intent Crimes List

Mens rea, Actus reus, and Attendant Circumstances

Common law defined criminal conduct by first looking at the mens rea or the offender’s “guilty mind.” Second, the common law looked at the actus reus or the offender’s “guilty act.” Finally, the common law weighed in the attendant circumstances. An important skill for a law school student is to be able to locate the mens rea, actus reus, and attendant circumstances in a definition of a crime.

For example, common law battery was defined as:

“The offense of battery occurs when a person actually and intentionally touches or strikes another against his or her will.”

  1. To determine the mens rea look for what describes the offender’s state of mind. Here, it is “intentionally.”
  2. To determine the actus reus look for what describes the offender’s action(s) that makes him guilty. Here, it is “actually…touchers or strikes another.”
  3. To determine the attendant circumstances look for the factors stem from the point of view of someone other than the defendant and that aggravate or mitigate the amount of culpability. Here, it is “against his or her will.”

Here is the common law definition of battery with the mens rea, actus reus, and attendant circumstances highlighted:

“The offense of battery occurs when a person actually and intentionally touches or strikes another against his or her will.”

A quick note on attendant circumstances: When determining what are attendant circumstances, it does not matter if the actor knows or intends to touch against the victim’s will. The actor’s guilty mind is not a factor in determining the attendant circumstances. In fact, attendant circumstances is actually from the point of view of someone other than the defendant (typically the victim). Also, it may be helpful if you think of attendant circumstances as those factors that would be helpful in determining a sentence, factors than can aggravate or mitigate the crime such as the amount of culpability.

Law school students should also know that under common law, the mens rea only modified the actus, not the attendant circumstances. Under our modern view, the mens rea modifies everything in the definition.

Regina v. Prince, L.R. 2 Cr. Cas. Res. 154 (1875)

Case Name: Regina v. Prince
Citation: L.R. 2 Cr. Cas. Res. 154 (1875)

Facts: Defendant was convicted of taking an unmarried girl under 16 years out of the possession and against the will of her father (a misdemeanor). The jury found that the girl had told the defendant she was 18, the defendant honestly believed the statement, and his belief was reasonable.

Defendant’s argument: The statute has a requirement read into it that the prosecution must prove that the defendant believed the girl he had taken was over 16.

State’s argument: The statute does not require this proof. The act of taking a girl out is wrong in and of itself – that is the mens rea. It does not matter that he thought the girl was older. Just like it would not matter whether he knew or did not know whether she is under 16. However, it would have mattered if he did not know the girl was in the custody of her father.

Holding: Conviction affirmed.

Reasoning: The court interpreted the statute to require a strict liability application. The Common Law does not allow defenses to strict liability.

Dissent: The defendant had reasonable ground for believing what the girl told him and had what she said been true, he would not have done the act (no mens rea). “a mistake of facts, on reasonable grounds…is an excuse” (if, had the facts been true, he would not have been guilty) that is implied in every criminal charge and enactment in England.

United States v. Jewell, 532 F.2d 697 (1976)

Case Name: United States v. Jewell
Citation: 532 F.2d 697 (1976)

Facts: Jewell was convicted of knowingly transporting marijuana in his car from Mexico. The pot was hidden in a secret compartment behind the rear seat. There was evidence that Jewell deliberately avoided positive knowledge in order to avoid responsibility  (“Willful Blindness”). The trial court judge gave a jury instruction that defendant is guilty if the government shows, beyond a reasonable doubt, that (even though he was not actually aware) his ignorance was solely because he made a conscious purpose to disregard what was in the vehicle to avoid learning the truth.

Defendant’s argument: The state needs to prove that Jewell knowingly brought and possessed the marijuana into the US. The MPC requires the state to prove that the defendant is “aware of a high probability of its existence.”

State’s argument: Jewell interprets “knowingly” to narrow and is not consistent with the purpose of the Drug Control Act. A narrow interpretation would allow deliberate ignorance as a defense.

Holding: Upheld the judge’s instruction and the defendant’s conviction.

Dissent: Three errors in the jury instruction:

  1. The MPC gives a definition of knowledge not an alternative for it (mentions a gift to child)
  2. Did not alert the jury that he could not be convicted if he “actually believed” there was no controlled substance in the car
  3. The instruction clearly stated that the defendant could have been convicted even if found ignorant or “not actually aware” that the car contained a controlled substance

Regina v. Cunningham, 2 QB. 396 (1957)

Case Name: Regina v. Cunningham
Citation: 2 QB. 396 (1957)

Facts: Regina stole a gas meter from the gas pipes of a home and the gas leaked into the house and partially asphyxiated his future mother-in-law who was sleeping. He served six months for stealing the gas meter and was convicted for “unlawfully and maliciously” endangering another by exposing them to a noxious substance.

Defendant’s argument: No mens rea existed. Also, Regina must have intended to do the harm or that he must foresee the harm and recklessly act. Finally, the judge stated that “malicious” means the same as “wicked” and he found this fact for the jury.

State’s argument: Malice either requires (1) an actual intention to do the particular kind of harm that in fact was done; or (2) recklessness as to whether such harm should occur or not. Malice does not require any ill will towards the person injured. Malice postulates “foresight of consequence.”

Holding: Conviction quashed. It should have been left to the jury to decide whether the defendant foresaw that his action might cause injury to someone.

Reasoning: The trial court judge equated malicious with wicked. He implied that if the jury found the Regina’s act of stealing the gas meter “wicked” then the jury should find Regina maliciously caused that harm.