What is Criminal Intent and why is it an Important Determinant in the Justice System

Under the law of England and Wales, criminal intent is an every day term for the mental element, or mens rea, of a crime. For most crimes, apart from strict liability offences require that the offender not only did that person do the act but that he did so with a guilty mind, knowingly or recklessly. Only in strict liability offences is the act itself the crime. In most other offences, where a person does an act without the required intent in some cases there can be no crime, in others lack of required intent reduces charges. Courts also use the measure of a guilty mind to determine the correct sentence, in all circumstances of the case before them.

For example, in the crime of theft, the offender must not only have taken the item from its owner’s possession he must assume an owner’s right with regard to the item, and he must intend to deprive the owner of the item permanently. That sounds very complicated but it means that just taking the item is not the crime. If Bert takes John’s car, believing that John said he could borrow the car, he has not necessarily committed a crime. The court will, of course consider and examine whether Bert’s belief is reasonable in all the circumstances. If Bert’s belief is reasonable, the court may conclude that he made an honest mistake in the circumstances. It may be that John did say that Bert could use the car and then changed his mind but Bert did not hear him say so. In which case, Bert lacks the necessary criminal intent for the crime of theft and so is not guilty of theft. If Bert borrows the car but returns it to John after twenty minutes, he does not intend to deprive John permanently of the car and again cannot be guilty of theft. Bert lacks the necessary mental elements for the crime of theft.

Homicide law, in England and Wales, requires that murder requires two elements, an act, which is any conduct resulting in another person’s death, and a mental element, intent or knowledge that conduct will result in death or very serious injury. For example, if Bill finds a burglar in his home in the middle of the night, holding a gun at his wife, Jenny’s head, and smashes a vase over the burglar’s head and kills him. Bill does not commit murder. His intention was not to kill the burglar, but to stop the burglar threatening Jenny’s life. A vase is not a weapon, and he picked it up in the heat of the moment. However, if Bill found an unarmed man in the hallway of his home and shot him. He may well be guilty of murder.

When a murder case comes before and English court the prosecution must prove that the defendant did the act, which killed the victim. It must further prove that the defendant intended to kill that person and wanted that result, or that the defendant knew or ought to have known that his actions would kill that person or cause him very serious injury. In English courts, the jury considers whether the prosecution has proved the necessary criminal intent. The judge directs the jury, before they begin their deliberations, as to the law as it applies to the circumstances of the instant case, but the mental element of any crime is a matter of fact that the jury must find. If the jury believes the prosecution has not proved the defendant’s intent or recklessness, it is open to them to bring a verdict of not guilty of murder, but guilty of manslaughter.

Criminal intent can make a difference in cases where there are two offences, a simple offence, and an aggravated offence under statute law. It may determine the defendant’s charge in the beginning of the Criminal Justice process or it may determine his conviction and sentence at the end of the process. For example, Under the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 as amended, there are two offences under section 23 and 24, both offences involve the unlawful administering of a noxious substance, however, the intent required for each offence is different. The section 23 offence, a result crime, requires that the unlawful substance endangered the victim’s life or commit grievous bodily harm, for which the maximum sentence is ten years imprisonment. The section 24 offence requires the criminal intent to injure, aggrieve, or annoy, but only attracts a five-year maximum prison sentence. Administering heroin could be a section 23 offence or a section 24 offence but under s25 OAP 1861 it is open to the court to find the defendant guilty of the s24 crime where he lacks the intent for the s23 offence. There are also now several offences where a racial intent to a crime makes that crime very much more serious, attracting a higher sentence. Both charges may appear on the indictment and the court considers both charges.

In English law, criminal intent is the mental element of a crime. Apart from strict liability crimes, which require only the act, criminal intent is the mental element of most crimes, it may determine criminal guilt or innocence, or , in a case involving unlawful killing, whether the defendant has committed murder or manslaughter. Criminal intent is a determining factor throughout the English Justice system from charge to sentence.