The Elements of a Crime


The Elements of a Crime

Learning Objective 4: Delineate the elements required to establish mens rea (a guilty mental state).

A. General Requirements

i. Criminal law requires that the corpus delicti, “the body of the crime” be proved before a person can be convicted of a wrongdoing

ii. Corpus delicti can be defined as “proof that a specific crime has actually been committed by someone”

iii. It consists of the basic elements of any crime, which include (1) actus reus, or a guilty act; (2) mens rea, or a guilty intent; (3) concurrence, or the coming together of the criminal act and the guilty mind; (4) a link between the act and the legal definition of the crime; (5) any attendant circumstances; and (6) the harm done, or the result of the criminal act.

B. Criminal Act: Actus Reus

i. Guilty or prohibited act

ii. The act of commission must be voluntary

iii. A Legal Duty

a. In some cases an act of omission can be a crime, when the defendant had a legal duty to perform the omitted act

iv. A Plan or Attempt

a. A person can be punished for taking substantial steps toward the commission of an offense, or attempting to commit the crime; the punishment for an attempt is generally less severe than for a completed act

C. Mental State: Mens Rea

i. Guilty intent or requisite intent

ii. Guilty mental state includes elements of purpose, knowledge, negligence, and recklessness

iii. Categories of Mens Rea

a. A defendant has purposely committed a crime when he or she desires to engage in certain criminal conduct or to cause a certain criminal result

b. A defendant has knowingly committed an illegal act when he or she is aware of the illegality, believes the illegality exists or suspects the illegality, but fails to do anything to dispel his or her belief

c. Negligence

1. Involves the mental state in which the defendant grossly deviates from the standard of care that a reasonable person would use under the same circumstances

d. Recklessness

1. “Consciously disregard[ing] a substantial and unjustifiable code”

iv. Degrees of Crime

a. Willful murder

1. First Degree Murder

i. Premeditation

ii. Deliberate – planned and decided on

2. Second Degree Murder

i. 15-25 years in prison

ii. There was no premeditation or deliberation

iii. The offender had malice aforethought towards the

b. Types of Manslaughter

1. Voluntary manslaughter – intent to kill may be present, but malice is lacking

2. Involuntary manslaughter – offender’s acts may have been careless, but he or she had no intent to kill

v. Strict Liability

a. General requirements

1. For certain crimes, criminal law holds the defendant to be guilty even if intent to commit the offense is lacking

2. Generally involves endangering the public welfare in some way

3. Drug control statutes, health and safety regulations, statutory rape provisions, and traffic ordinances are all strict liability laws

b. Protecting the Public

1. The goal of strict liability is to protect the public by eliminating the possibility that wrongdoers could claim ignorance or mistake to absolve themselves of criminal responsibility

c. Protecting Minors

1. Statutory rape is considered a strict liability crime even if the minor consents to the sexual act because the minors are considered incapable of making a rational decision on the matter

vi. Accomplice Liability

a. Under certain circumstances, a person can be charged with and convicted of a crime that he or she did not commit

b. Occurs when the suspect has acted as an accomplice to a crime

c. To be found guilty as an accomplice, suspect needs to have “dual intent”

1. To aid the person who committed the crime

2. Such aid would lead to the commission of the crime

What If Scenario

What if . . . two men are facing the death penalty for the murder of a woman. Evidence shows that only one man, defendant A, struck the fatal blow with a hammer to the woman’s head, while the other man, defendant B, held her down while defendant A beat her to death. Should defendant B face the death penalty? What if the two men are tried separately, and the jury in the first trial spares the life of defendant A, but the jury in the second trial determines that defendant B should suffer the death penalty? Should that be permissible? Why or why not? Now, change the scenario, above. What if defendant B had merely been the “getaway driver.” Should he, also, face death for his part in the murder, even though he was not even in the room when the fatal blow was struck? Why or why not?

D. Concurrence

i. Coming together of the criminal act and the guilty mind

ii. The guilty act and the guilty intent must occur together

E. Causation

i. A link between the act and the legal definition of the crime

ii. Criminal law requires that the criminal act caused the harm suffered

F. Attendant Circumstances

i. General requirements

a. Any accompanying circumstances

b. Allow for differentiating among varying degrees of a crime

ii. Requirements of Proof and Intent

a. Attendant circumstances must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt

b. The means rea of the defendant regarding each attendant circumstance must be proved

iii. Hate Crime Laws

a. Hate crime laws consider a motive of bias an attendant circumstance and increase the criminal penalty accordingly

b. Hate crime laws provide greater sanctions against those who commit crimes motivated by bias against a person based on race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability, or age.

G. Harm

i. For a crime to occur, some harm must have been done to a person or to property

ii. A certain amount of crimes are categorized depending on the harm done to the victim, regardless of the intent behind the criminal act

iii. Many acts are deemed criminal if they could do harm that the laws try to prevent (inchoate offenses)

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