In order for you to be convicted of most crimes, the prosecution must be able to establish that you intended to commit the crime in question and that you followed through with your intention. In other words, it is possible to commit a crime without being legally guilty of the crime – if you had no intention of committing it. This distinction can become very complicated very quickly, which makes having a better understanding of the matter beneficial.
The Latin phrase mens rea refers to the legal concept of a guilty mind, and it must be present in order for most crimes to have been committed. To prove that you committed the crime in question, the prosecution must demonstrate that both of the following are true:
That you committed the crime
That you did so intentionally
The level of intention alleged to be involved can play an important role in the charges you face, which only serves to complicate the matter further.
The Level of Intention
The level of intention involved in criminal charges varies considerably. Some charges require a specific minimum level of intention before the charge can stick.
Malice aforethought (also known as premeditation) is the highest level of legal intention, and it is usually reserved for very serious crimes, such as capital or first-degree murder. To commit a crime with malice aforethought, one must engage in all the following:
Decide to commit the crime
Plan one’s actions ahead of time
Carry out the crime
When a crime is intentional, it means that the perpetrator had the specific purpose of committing the crime but did not necessarily plan his or her actions ahead of time. An example includes an assault that is borne of an angry incident (rather than an assault that was planned ahead).
Reckless behavior can lead to exceptionally dangerous situations and to dire consequences, but reckless behaviors are unlikely to be planned in advance – and the perpetrator is unlikely to have intentionally caused harm (reckless driving accidents are a good example).
The knowing level of criminal intent refers to intentionally engaging in behaviors that other reasonable people would recognize as being either potentially criminal or potentially dangerous. Firing a gun into the air is a prime example – because reasonable people recognize that firing a gun is always potentially dangerous.
The law takes the fact of making an honest mistake (rather than having intention) into consideration. For example, if a motorist – who has no criminal intent and who was not driving recklessly – leaves someone else on the road fatally wounded, the driver may face civil rather than criminal charges.