Is It Criminal Intent or an Honest Mistake?


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In order for you to be convicted of a crime, the prosecution usually must establish that you committed the crime intentionally (Learn more about the consequences of a criminal conviction). For legal purposes, criminal intent refers to the perpetrator's desire to commit an illegal act. On the other hand, a person can commit a crime without intending to do so. While this may not mean that the accused will not face any consequences for the act, said consequences may be far less severe as a result.

Mens Rea

Mens rea – a Latin phrase that means guilty mind – is a legal concept that references the accused’s intentions. In order to convict the accused of a specific intent crime, the prosecution must be able to show both that:

  • The defendant in question committed the crime.
  • The defendant in question committed the crime intentionally.

Crimes and the Level of Intent

Different kinds of crimes require that different levels of intention be proven. Generally, the more serious the crime, the higher the level of intention necessary. A charge of murder, for example, must be predicated on the accused having a definite level of intent. This is the very reason that a motorist who accidentally hits and kills a pedestrian is likely to be charged with manslaughter and not with murder. (What is the difference between a murder charge and a manslaughter charge?)

The different levels of intent include:

Malice Aforethought or Premeditation – Malice aforethought and premeditation refer to the defendant having decided to commit a crime, planning how to carry out the crime, and carrying out the crime. This level of intent is usually reserved for convicting a defendant of first-degree murder.

Intentional – The intentional level means that the crime was carried out with purpose but that it was not likely planned or premeditated. A person who suddenly becomes enraged in the middle of an argument and violently acts upon that rage can be so charged.

Recklessness – Reckless behavior can result in disaster even though the defendant had no intention of causing harm. The motorist who killed the pedestrian, for example, was likely reckless. (Reckless driving can get you in a lot of trouble. Click here to learn more)

Knowing – When criminal intent is at the level of knowing it means that the accused intentionally engaged in behavior that a reasonable person would understand or know is potentially criminal or dangerous. Randomly firing a gun into the air fits this level of intent.

Liability – Liability refers to simply committing an illegal act. A person can be liable for a crime even if the person had no intention of breaking the law. A store clerk who sells tobacco to a minor is a good example – even if the clerk honestly believed that the purchaser was of legal age (said clerk should have checked the customer’s identification).

Honest Mistakes

In some cases, the law makes exceptions for people who make honest mistakes. For example, if the motorist above was not reckless or otherwise intentional in his or her actions, he or she may not face criminal charges. However, claiming a lack of intent can naturally go only so far.

Facing Criminal Charges? Consult a Defense Lawyer Today!

Criminal charges are always serious, and Attorney Brett Pritchard at The Law Office of Brett H. Pritchard in Killeen, Texas, is committed to helping you bring your strongest defense skillfully. Our dedicated legal team is here to help, so please do not hesitate to contact us or call us at (254) 220-4225 for more information today.


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