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What Is Criminal Intent?

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A defendant’s mental state at the time of an alleged offense is often a key factor in determining both (i) whether the defendant is guilty of the offense, and (ii) if the defendant is guilty, the level of punishment that is appropriate. For many types of crimes, this mental state is referred to as “intent.”

Understanding Criminal Culpability

Understanding criminal culpability (the mental state required in order to be guilty of a crime) can be a challenge. First of all, criminal law distinguishes between intent, knowledge and willfulness, and recklessness. Then, within the concept of “intent,” there is a distinction between intending the conduct and intending the result. For example, when someone is charged with the intentional killing of another person, their defense lawyer may argue that they are not guilty even though they intentionally pulled the trigger because they either: (i) thought the gun was empty; (ii) did not intend the bullet to hit somebody; or, (iii) were acting in self defense. In other words, while they intended to pull the trigger (the conduct), they did not intend to kill (the result).

Intent vs. Motive

Importantly, intent is different from motive. While a person’s motive to commit a crime may be relevant to understanding why they chose to commit a crime, a “bad” motive by itself is not punishable, and a “good” motive generally is not an excuse for committing a criminal offense. For example, if someone steals to help the poor, they arguably have a “good” motive. But, they can still be charged with theft because stealing is unlawful, and the reason why they chose to break the law is, to a certain extent, irrelevant.

However, while a “bad” motive or “guilty mind” by itself does not make an act unlawful, judges do often consider a defendant’s motive during sentencing. In certain circumstances, a bad motive (such as greed, hatred, or racism) can result in a more-severe punishment.

Intent vs. Knowledge, Willfulness, and Recklessness

Some crimes require a mental state of knowledge and willfulness. To be found guilty of these crimes, the defendant need not intend the result, but only to know that the result is certain. For crimes that require recklessness, the defendant must act with a conscious disregard of a risk of which he or she was aware. In other words, the defendant must know that there is a risk of injury, but proceed anyway.

How Can the Government Prove Intent?

In order to prove intent, the government must prove the defendant’s actual mental state with regard to both the facts and the result of their conduct. How do prosecutors determine whether a defendant had the requisite intent to be found guilty? The answer is almost always inference.

Prosecutors can infer intent not only from a defendant’s own conduct and words, but from witness testimony, as well. In order to avoid merely speculating about intent, the law requires that a jury be persuaded beyond a reasonable doubt that the prosecutor’s inference of the mental state is reasonable. In practice, a motive will bolster the prosecutor’s case, since motive allows the jury to infer intent. However, courts generally interpret intent requirements and criminal statutes narrowly in favor of defendants.

Contact Oberheiden, P.C. about Your Federal Criminal Case

At the Oberheiden, P.C., we provide vigorous legal representation for criminal defendants in federal criminal courts across the country. Our defense team consists of experienced criminal defense attorneys and former federal prosecutors who are passionate about ensuring justice for our clients. The members of our defense team include:

If you are facing federal charges, we encourage you to contact us for a free criminal defense evaluation. Contact us online or call (800) 701-7249 to speak directly with one of our senior attorneys today.
This information has been prepared for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. This information may constitute attorney advertising in some jurisdictions. Reading of this information does not create an attorney-client relationship. Prior results do not guarantee similar future outcomes. Oberheiden, P.C. is a Texas LLP with headquarters in Dallas. Mr. Oberheiden limits his practice to federal law.

Orange County 714-294-2000
Los Angeles 310-873-8140
Detroit 313-888-8807
Nationwide 888-452-2503