In literature, films, television and, of course, the courts, criminal intent is always a major issue.
What is it? How does it affect a case?
There are four kinds of criminal intent: purposeful, knowing, reckless, and negligent. Acts become criminal and expose people to different degrees of punishment depending upon the intent of the actor.
Acts that are done purposefully are those accomplished by a person fully aware of the intended consequences of his or her act and who desires the result. Knowing acts are slightly less serious because they are done with an awareness of the consequences that may result, but not necessarily the purpose to cause the result. Reckless acts are defined as a conscious disregard of the consequences of a person’s act. Finally, negligent conduct means a failure to act as a reasonable person in a given situation resulting in harm to others.
Examples help to clarify these different states of mind. If a person drives a car and carelessly fails to stop at a stop sign and a collision occurs, the driver acted negligently, and not reasonably. He or she would face civil responsibility to compensate the injured party.
Negligent intent in the criminal law relates to dangerous activities and the need to exercise extreme caution. Acting careless in the disposal of medical waste, or the dumping of chemicals in parklands, or even in the discharge of a weapon on the Fourth of July can be defined as acts prohibited by our statutes because they are done negligently.
An example of reckless intent includes an assault resulting from a person swinging a bottle in a fight in a crowded bar. In close proximity to others, swinging a bottle ignores the consequences that it will hit and injure another person. It can include speeding in a school zone if there is the possibility that a child could be struck and the driver simply disregards the possibility of injury.
Knowing criminal intent based upon knowing means an awareness of the consequences. For example, stabbing someone with a knife is done knowingly by an adult when it can be proved that he knew that a knife would pierce the skin of another and cause injury. It might also include writing a check with insufficient funds in the account to cover the amount of the check.
Purposeful behavior is the most serious criminal intent. It means that a person intends the consequences of his act. For example, planning to kill someone and then shooting the intended victim. Entering a home with the intent to steal is purposeful criminal intent.
Our criminal code mandates the most serious penalties for acts that are purposeful and the least for negligent acts. Since the punishment for purposeful and knowing acts often include incarceration, a criminal defense lawyer is vital in demonstrating that an act was not purposeful or knowing.
Establishing facts, demonstrating psychological defenses through experts or reconstructing a collision can mean the difference between acquittal or conviction, jail or probation.
A recent study by professors from leading universities revealed that jurors have a difficult time sorting criminal responsibility between knowing and reckless behaviors, but much less difficulty with acts that are charged as purposeful or negligent.
The ability of a skilled criminal defense attorney to navigate those states of mind and persuade a prosecutor, judge, or jury that his client did not act knowingly or purposefully can make the difference between not guilty or guilty, freedom or jail.