Specific Intent

AuthorJeffrey Lehman, Shirelle Phelps

Page 266

The mental purpose, aim, or design to accomplish a specific harm or result by acting in a manner prohibited by law.

The term specific intent is commonly used in criminal and TORT LAW to designate a special state of mind that is required, along with a physical

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act, to constitute certain crimes or torts. Specific intent is usually interpreted to mean intentionally or knowingly. Common-law LARCENY, for example, requires both the physical act of taking and carrying away the property of another and the mental element of intent to steal the property. Similarly, common-law BURGLARY requires breaking and entering into the dwelling of another with an intent to commit a felony therein. These crimes and others that require a specific-intent element are called specific-intent crimes and are distinguished from general-intent crimes. General-intent crimes require only a showing that the defendant intended to do the act prohibited by law, not that the defendant intended the precise harm or the precise result that occurred.

Courts have defined specific intent as the subjective desire or knowledge that the prohibited result will occur (People v. Owens, 131 Mich. App. 76, 345 N.W.2d 904 [1983]). Intent and motive are commonly confused, but they are distinct principles and differentiated in the law. Motive is the cause or reason that prompts a person to act or fail to act. Intent refers only to the state of mind with which the act is done or omitted. Because intent is a state of mind, it can rarely be proved with direct evidence and ordinarily must be inferred from the facts of the case. Evidence of intent is always admissible to prove a specific-intent crime, but evidence of motive is only admissible if it tends to help prove or negate the element of intent.

Courts generally allow a wide range of direct and CIRCUMSTANTIAL EVIDENCE to be introduced at trial in order to prove the difficult element of criminal or tortious intent. In addition, the doctrine of presumed intent may be helpful in proving specific intent because it holds individuals accountable for all the NATURAL AND PROBABLE CONSEQUENCES of their acts.

A defendant may testify at trial as to his intent. Whether the defendant intended to break the law does not matter, however; rather, the issue is whether he intended to do that which is unlawful. For example, a defendant may maintain that he took money without permission in order to...

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