When it comes to criminal charges in the United States, we are all presumed innocent – to one degree or another – until proven guilty. Such proof can be the result of a confession or of a criminal proceeding, such as a plea deal or trial.
However, there is more to the matter of guilt than the alleged criminal act itself. Before someone can be convicted of a crime, they must be found criminally responsible, which is a challenging legal concept in and of itself that is worthy of further investigation.
If you are facing a criminal charge of any kind, the surest way to protect your rights and freedom is with an experienced Killeen criminal defense attorney on your side.
Criminal Responsibility Defined
In order for someone to be convicted of a criminal offense, they must be criminally responsible for their actions, and this means committing the offense with intention or as a result of either negligence or recklessness. For an act to be a crime, the person accused of committing it must have had the necessary criminal state of mind – mens rea – at the time.
If the prosecution cannot prove that the accused either intended to commit the crime in question or showed willful disregard for the safety of others in the commission of the crime, then the accused cannot be found criminally responsible for the crime, which cannot – at this point – be labeled a crime.
It gets more complicated from here, however. If the accused intended to engage in the behavior in question, it may be enough to prove criminal responsibility – even if they were not aware that the behavior was illegal. In other words, if the defendant intentionally committed a crime – whether or not they knew it was a crime – mens rea applies.
In addition to having one of these basic mindsets, all of the following must apply when it comes to proving criminal responsibility:
There is no legal justification, such as necessity, for the defendant having committed the crime.
The defendant is not excluded from criminal responsibility due to certain characteristics, such as lacking the capacity to understand the criminal nature of the act.
There are no statutory grounds that decriminalize the act, such as an officer’s authority to use necessary force to arrest a suspect.
Criminal Responsibility: The Basics
In order for the accused to be found criminally responsible for the charge at hand, a range of factors apply, including the following considerations:
The accused’s competence
The accused’s defense
The prosecution’s ability to demonstrate that all the elements of the crime in question are present
There are situations in which an action that would be found criminal under different circumstances is lawful because of the current circumstances.
To avoid criminal responsibility, the accused must employ one of the following defenses, which we will explore further below:
The accused was acting out of necessity
The accused was acting under duress
The accused was mentally incapacitated
The accused was intoxicated
There are also situations in which the accused can employ the defense of a mistake of law, which applies only in four very specific situations:
The charge relates to an act committed prior to the law in question being published.
The law in question has since been overturned or deemed unconstitutional.
The judicial decision relied upon has since been overturned.
The interpretation of the law relied upon has since been deemed erroneous.
Our criminal justice system is charged with zealously protecting the rights of those accused, including their right to raise any and all valid defenses. Contact a criminal defense lawyer for help identifying the defenses that can be useful in your case.
Intention, Recklessness, or Negligence
The prosecution is tasked with proving that the defendant’s alleged criminal act was intentional, reckless, or negligent:
An act is intentional when the person who engages in it does so with purpose and knowledge.
An act is reckless when the person who engages in it takes risks that are unjustifiable given the known circumstances.
An act is negligent when the person who engages in it takes risks that are unjustifiable given the known circumstances – even when the person is not fully cognizant of the involved risk.
Some crimes require the element of intention, which means that recklessness or negligence alone will not suffice to obtain a conviction.
A defendant can avoid criminal responsibility for a charge if justification for the act in question can be established. As such, justification is known as a complete defense because it negates the entire charge, which includes any interrelated offenses. Examples of justification defenses include the following motivations for action:
The defense of someone else
The defense of one’s property
Excusing Criminal Responsibility
In addition to having a justification for the commission of what would otherwise be a crime, any of the following defenses can rise to the level of excusing criminal responsibility:
In order to be found competent to stand trial in the face of a criminal charge and, therefore, to be found criminally responsible in the face of a conviction, the defendant must possess a level of competence that is demonstrably sufficient to understand the legal proceedings and to participate in their own legal defense actively.
Some people have the public authority to avoid criminal responsibility for specific acts. Police officers are a common example. This public authority defense can also extend to those who mistakenly believe they are authorized by the government to take specific actions.
If the court finds that the defendant was legally insane at the time of the crime’s commission, it can also void the defendant’s criminal responsibility. Legal insanity is a challenging bar to clear and is categorized in the following three ways:
The defendant’s mental state prevented them from understanding what they were doing.
The defendant’s mental state prevented them from knowing they were committing a crime.
The defendant was acting on an uncontrollable impulse.
The Minimum Age of Criminal Responsibility
The minimum age of criminal responsibility varies considerably across the country, and 28 states set no minimum age at all. In Texas, the minimum age of responsibility is 15, but the judge in any given case has the discretion to apply legal consequences to those as young as 10.
It is always important to consider whether the accused has the necessary presence of mind to be found legally competent. When a child is unable to appreciate the criminality of an act fully, criminal responsibility is lacking.
Lack of Competence
When a defendant can prove a lack of necessary competence, it can nullify their criminal responsibility. This defense is predicated on the state of mind at the time the illegal act was committed.
State of Mind
Common examples of a state of mind that can affect a defendant’s competence in relation to a criminal act include the following situations:
While the law is not settled regarding gross intoxication as a defense against criminal responsibility, courts have ruled that gross intoxication can impair a defendant’s capacity to act purposefully and knowingly.
While legal insanity may not nullify all of a defendant’s criminal responsibility, it can affect the charge brought or may remove the element of intent from an intent-specific charge.
The Ability to Understand and Participate
Competency goes beyond the state of mind to include defendants’ ability to understand the charges brought against them and to assist in their own legal defense. As such, defendants are required to meet all the following criteria:
Defendants must have a reasonable understanding of the charges levied against them and the attendant evidence that may be used to implicate them in the charges.
Defendants must be capable of not only entering a plea but also understanding the consequences of the plea in relation to loss of freedom and beyond.
Evaluating Criminal Responsibility
In order to demonstrate that a defendant has criminal responsibility for the charge levied against them, the prosecution has the burden of proving the matter to the trier of fact in the case, which means either the jury or the judge (for bench trials). This includes proving that all the elements of the crime in question are present.
Filing of Criminal Charges
The matter of evaluating criminal responsibility starts with the initial filing of criminal charges, which involves the following concerns:
In order to detain someone while a potential crime is being investigated, the police must demonstrate that they have reasonable suspicion for doing so.
Judges look to probable cause when they evaluate police arrests and other actions, which means that there must be objectively reasonable circumstances that justify the arrest.
Beyond a Reasonable Doubt
In order for a defendant to be convicted of a crime, the prosecution must prove each element of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. As such, the evidence against the accused must be so compelling that no reasonable person would question it. This means that the jury or judge concludes that the defendant’s guilt is the only logical conclusion or explanation.
The Element of Intent
Most crimes include the element of intent, which breaks down into basic categories:
General intent means that the criminal act itself implies the accused’s intent in the matter. For example, general intent is present in arson cases. This means that the person who lit the fire cannot argue that they had no intention to cause the damage that occurred. Intentionally starting a building on fire shows enough general intent to be convicted of an arson charge.
Specific intent refers to purposefully, knowingly, and willingly committing the crime in question. When someone walks into a convenience store and holds the person behind the counter up at gunpoint, the matter of specific intent is generally established.
Criminal Responsibility and Dementia
In some cases, dementia plays a role in criminal responsibility. In order for the court to find the accused competent to stand trial, the defendants must be competent enough to do all the following:
Understand the legal proceedings involved
Enter a plea
Participate in their legal defense, which includes having the ability to engage in clear communications with their attorneys
Dementia is a form of neurodegenerative disease that can directly affect all the following:
The sufferer’s ability to process emotions
The sufferer’s judgment
The sufferer’s disposition to violence
The sufferer’s self-awareness
These effects can lead to criminal or antisocial behaviors in people with no prior history of acting outside the boundaries of the law.
When dementia is a defense for criminal responsibility, the courts generally work closely with medical professionals in the field, the accused’s doctors, attorneys from both sides, and patient representatives to ascertain whether the defendant has the required mental capacity and necessary competency to face the criminal charge in question.
An Experienced Killeen Criminal Defense Attorney Is on Your Side
If you are facing a criminal charge, it is a complicated legal matter – the outcome of which can directly affect your future. If you find yourself in this challenging situation, you need professional legal guidance.
Brett Pritchard at The Law Office of Brett H. Pritchard in Killeen, Texas, is a formidable criminal defense attorney who has a wealth of experience successfully guiding difficult cases like yours toward advantageous outcomes that uphold our clients’ rights.Our trusted legal team is on your side and standing by to help, so please do not delay reaching out to contact us online or call us at (254) 781-4222 for more information today.