§ 10.06 "Specific Intent" and "General Intent"

§ 10.06 "Specific Intent" and "General Intent"

The terms "specific intent" and "general intent" are the bane of criminal law students and, it must be said, practicing lawyers and judges. This is because the terms are critical to understanding various common law rules of criminal responsibility,115 yet the concepts are so "notoriously difficult . . . to define and apply . . . [that] a number of text writers recommend that they be abandoned altogether."116 Perhaps the most important message one can provide in regard to these terms is this: There is no way, with confidence, to know what these terms mean except (perhaps) in the context of the law of a given jurisdiction. Tread carefully.

Historically, "general intent" referred to any offense for which the only mens rea required was a blameworthy state of mind; "specific intent" was meant to emphasize that the definition of the offense expressly required proof of a particular—specific—mental state.117 In other words, an offense that only required proof of "mens rea" in the "culpability" sense of the term was a "general intent" crime; offenses that required "mens rea" in the "elemental" sense were "specific intent" in nature.118 This dichotomy was understandable: The definitions of most common law and early statutory offenses were silent in regard to mens rea; those exceptional offenses that did expressly require a particular state of mind—e.g., murder ("malice aforethought"), larceny ("intent to steal"), and burglary ("intent to commit a felony [inside a dwelling])"—stood out, and were thus denominated as "specific intent offenses."

Today, in the non-common law world in which the criminal law is based, most penal statutes expressly include a mens rea term, or a particular state of mind is judicially implied, so the line between "general" and "specific" intent is much more difficult to draw. Making matters worse, as noted, there is no universally accepted meaning of the terms. Frequently, courts draw the following distinction: An offense is "specific intent" if the crime requires proof that the actor's conscious object, or purpose, is to cause the social harm set out in the definition of the offense. In contrast, a crime is "general intent" if the actor can be convicted upon proof of any lesser state of mind, such as when he causes the harm knowingly, recklessly, or negligently.119

There is, however, another common way the terms are explained. Generally speaking, a "specific intent" offense is one in which the...

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