Criminal Intent

Criminal intent is the conscious decision someone makes to deliberately engage in an unlawful or negligent act, or to harm someone else. There are four specific examples of criminal intent: purposeful, reckless, knowing, and negligent. An act becomes criminal when taking into account the intent of the person who carries it out.

Additionally, acts of criminal intent are measured by their severity, and the punishments for those who commit acts of criminal intent “fit the crime,” so to speak, in that the punishments become harsher as criminal acts become more severe. To explore this concept, consider the following criminal intent definition.

Definition of Criminal Intent


  1. Having the intention to commit a criminal act.
  2. The state of mind directing a person’s actions toward an unlawful goal.


1175-1225        Middle English

What is Criminal Intent

Criminal intent, referred to in the legal world as “mens rea,” refers to an individual’s state of mind at the time he committed a crime. Those with criminal intent are fully aware of what they are about to do and the consequences that their actions can have. For instance, if Paul thinks up a plan for how he is going to murder his wife, and then he fatally shoots her, Paul is operating with criminal intent because he knows that murder is wrong, yet he plans the act, and ultimately commits it anyway.

Criminal intent can be classified as one of four different kinds of acts: purposeful, knowing, reckless, and negligent. Criminal acts that are done purposefully are those that are carried out by someone who is fully aware of the consequences his actions can cause, such as the murder example provided above. Criminal intent is a necessary component in prosecuting a crime. If criminal intent does not exist, then it stands to reason that the crime that was committed cannot possibly be considered criminal in nature.

Types of Criminal Intent

States and federal governments have different definitions of criminal intent. Therefore, intent cannot be considered as one general, all-encompassing idea. Conversely, different types of criminal intent can exist, depending on the type of crime that was committed, and the mental state (mens rea) of the person who committed it.

The following are specific examples of the types of mens rea that can exist during the time that a crime is committed. The level of punishment that a criminal might receive depends greatly on the type of mens rea that can be proven at the time the crime was committed.

A skilled attorney can determine which form of criminal intent his client acted under. Someone who is convicted of a purposeful act of criminal intent will receive a much harsher sentence than someone who is convicted of a negligent one.


With intent, there is no denying that someone deliberately set out to harm someone, or to engage in some kind of illegal activity. Examples of criminal intent can be found in a deliberate action of targeting another person, with the intention of causing harm to that person, or to deliberately take someone’s property, with the intent to deprive them of it, or to convert it to one’s own use.

Criminal Intent Example

Scenario 1: Rob and Andrew are out in a field near the airport in their small town, drinking beer and watching planes land. They decide that the blue lights out there would be cool to own, so they take turns sneaking out into the field, unscrewing a light bulb, then stashing them in their car.

Scenario 2:  Rob and Andrew know there is an old airport outside their small town, which they believe to be abandoned. While exploring, they discover blue lights they would like to have. Being sure the airport is no longer in use, the boys take the lightbulbs, stashing them in their car.

Taking the lights from this private property is against the law. Just what type of charges might be levied against the young men depends on the situation – the difference here is intent. In Scenario 1, they knew the lights were owned by the airport, and were in use. They knew they were trespassing, and had to know that taking the lights could put others in danger. Yet, they stole the lights with intent to deprive the rightful owner of them, and to convert them to their own use.

In Scenario 2, they truly believed the airport was no longer being used. While they must have known they were trespassing on private property, they thought they were taking abandoned property – lights that were no longer in use. They did not intend to deprive the rightful owner.


Knowledge is different from intent, in that the criminal is aware of the consequences that can result from his actions, but simply does not care. For instance, Anna is upset that Charlie is cheating on her, so she plants a bomb in his car. She knows that Charlie will probably be taking Elsa, his mistress, out to dinner that night, and that the bomb could kill both Charlie and Elsa when it goes off. Anna does not care that Elsa could die too, and she is fully aware that this is the most likely scenario.

The bomb does, in fact, explode, killing Charlie and Elsa. While Anna will be charged with the intent of killing Charlie, she will more than likely also be charged with the knowledge that her actions would also kill Elsa


Recklessness is someone’s decision to do something dangerous, despite knowing the risks involved. For instance, if someone waves a loaded gun around in a crowded room – with no intention of shooting anyone – and the gun goes off anyway and hurts someone, his actions could be an example of criminal intent through recklessness. The shooter did not intend to hurt anyone, but he knew what could happen if he waved a loaded gun around in a crowd, and he did it anyway.


Negligence is perhaps the mildest form of criminality that anyone can be charged with. Negligence applies when someone failed to live up to his responsibilities, and someone else was injured as a result. For instance, if a child gets hurt on the babysitter’s watch, then the babysitter can be charged with negligence. Similarly, if a pet owner allows his pet to become malnourished and dehydrated, then he can be charged with negligence for not living up to his responsibilities as a pet owner.

Malice Aforethought

Malice aforethought is a specialized form of criminal intent that applies to only one crime: murder. This is because the very definition of malice aforethought is that it is someone’s premeditated “intent to kill.” This is considered the most severe crime that anyone can commit. Therefore, someone convicted of being in this state is typically punished more severely than any other criminal. Being convicted of murder with malice aforethought may subject the offender to life in prison without parole, or even the death penalty.

Specific Intent

Specific intent is the most severe criminal intent that can apply to any crime that is not murder. Unfortunately, it is difficult to define “specific” or “general” in a court of law, due to a lack of specificity in criminal statutes. However, it is typically accepted that specific intent means that the defendant acted with a significant level of awareness of the consequences that could result from his actions. Crimes committed with specific intent can usually be grouped into one of the following three categories:

  • The defendant intends to create a negative result.
  • The defendant intends to do something even more serious than committing the criminal act itself.
  • The defendant knowingly acts in a way that is illegal. (This behavior is called “scienter.”)


Scienter and mens rea are often used interchangeably. However, many jurisdictions consider scienter to be the person’s unquestionable knowledge that an act is illegal. Scienter can actually form the foundation of specific intent, depending on the statute involved.

For example, a statute that makes it a crime to write a bad check may require knowledge that the check is, in fact, written for an amount that the person cannot possibly cover with funds from his bank account. Therefore, it would be unlawful for that person to pay for something with that check.

If the prosecution fails to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused knew for sure that what he did was illegal, then the prosecution may miss their chance to ever prove that the accused acted with specific intent.

Criminal Intent Example in Conversion Case

The case of Morissette is a perfect one to illustrate whether or not someone acted with purposeful criminal intent. Here, Morissette was a scrap metal dealer who collected bomb casings from an air force practice bombing range, long after they had been spent. The casings had been lying around for years before Morissette happened upon them.

Morissette believed the casings were abandoned, and sold them as scrap metal for less than $100. He was then charged and convicted of knowingly taking possession of the government’s property, and of transferring governmental property to the junk dealer. Morissette appealed, saying that he truly did believe the casings were abandoned, and that there was no harm in selling them as scrap.

The Supreme Court ultimately reversed Morissette’s conviction, holding that damages can only be considered criminal if the person intended to commit a crime. The Court found that Morissette did not, in fact, intend to commit a crime by turning in the casings to his junk dealer, and he was therefore innocent of “knowingly” transferring governmental property to himself, and then to someone else. Specifically, Justice Robert H. Jackson, in the Court’s opinion, stated:

“Crime, as a compound concept, generally constituted only from concurrence of an evil-meaning mind with an evil-doing hand …”

Interestingly, the jury was actually instructed by the trial judge to determine solely whether or not Morissette took the property. They were banned from even considering the fact that Morissette believed the property to be abandoned. They were also instructed not to attempt to analyze Morrissett’s state of mind at the time of the alleged crime. The jury was therefore allowed to find Morissette guilty solely due to the fact that he took government property, a crime to which he had already admitted.

The reason for this was because the trial judge had assumed that the statute Congress had created would consider intent as a separate tort case. Had the jury been allowed to consider the fact that the casings were, in fact, abandoned property, whether they were governmental property or not, and whether Morissette had criminal intent, then the charges against Morissette would have been dropped. This is because the taking of abandoned property is not a crime, whereas the taking of governmental property is.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Negligent – Failure to act as, or to exercise the level of care of, another reasonably prudent person would be expected to act.
  • Recklessly – To act with no concern for the consequences, without caution, or carelessly.
  • Tort – an intentional or negligent act, a civil wrong, as opposed to a criminal act, which causes harm to another.