Transferred Intent

The legal term transferred intent is often summed up with the phrase “the intent follows the bullet.” What this means is that, if someone intends to shoot Person A, he will be held liable when the bullet that leaves his gun also injures Person B in the process. The offender’s intent is effectively “transferred” between the two victims. However, intent can only be “transferred” between crimes of a similar nature. For example, transferred intent can only be applicable to two people or two pieces of property. To explore this concept, consider the following transferred intent definition.

Definition of Transferred Intent

Noun

  1. A doctrine that holds an offender accountable for crime B that accidentally occurs as the result of his intention to commit crime A.

Doctrine of Transferred Intent

The doctrine of transferred intent allows for a defendant to be held liable for crime B, even if it occurred accidentally as the result of his committing crime A. The doctrine of transferred intent can be applied if an offender commits one of the following five torts:

Consider the following example of how the doctrine of transferred intent would be applied:

Karen is fed up with Shelly’s cat, which constantly digs up her flower beds, and uses them to toilet. Karen chases the cat off her property, pointing a gun at Shelly’s cat, with the intention of killing it. Karen shoots the gun, but instead of killing the cat, she misses and shoots Shelly in the foot. Here, two questions must be asked and answered:

  1. Question: If contact had been made with Shelly’s cat, would there have been a tort?
    Answer: Yes – a trespass to chattels, or an intention to interfere with someone’s enjoyment of his personal property.
  2. Question: If Shelly’s foot had been the intended target, would there have been a tort?
    Answer: Yes – battery.

Because the answer to both of these questions is “yes,” Karen’s intention to shoot the cat can be transferred to the resulting injury that Shelly suffered, and Karen can be held liable for the intentional tort of battery.

Intent can only be transferred between crimes of a similar nature. For example, transferred intent would not exist if Karen tried to shoot Shelly’s cat but missed and shot out a window. This is because the destruction of property is an entirely separate crime from the one that Karen had originally intended.

The way this is rationalized is that Karen has only one intent: to hurt Shelly’s cat. If a court found that Karen intended to destroy the window, then an intent would be assigned to Karen that she never actually possessed. Now, Karen would be assigned both the intent to kill and the intent to destroy property. However, if Karen intended to kill Shelly’s cat and killed her own cat by mistake, then there still exists only one intent: the intent to kill.

Mens Rea in Transferred Intent

Mens rea in transferred intent refers to a criminal’s state of mind upon committing a crime. His state of mind must be taken into consideration when deciding his intention in committing the crime and can be significant when transferring the intent. Mens rea in transferred intent is especially important when proving someone’s guilt in a criminal trial. To do this, the prosecution must be able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the crime while being in a guilty state of mind – that he had the intent to do harm. He must also be fully aware of his misconduct.

However, a defendant does not need to know his behavior is illegal to be guilty of a crime. Instead, he must be aware of the facts that make his behavior fit the definition of the crime of which he is accused. Even if a statute fails to mention the mental state that should govern the crime committed, the courts will usually demand that the government prove the defendant was in a guilty state of mind as he committed the crime. This is done to illustrate that the defendant was fully aware of his conduct at the time he committed the crime, and should therefore be punished accordingly.

There are four states of mind that are used to characterize how blameworthy an offender is upon committing a crime, and they are arranged from most to least serious: (1) purposeful, (2) knowing, (3) reckless, and (4) negligent. Therefore, taking this hierarchy into consideration, a person who commits a crime purposefully would receive a harsher sentence than someone who commits a crime due to negligence.

Determining the state of mind of the offender at the time that the crime is committed can be beneficial to finding mens rea in transferred intent. Once the offender’s mens rea has been established, the court will understand his intent, and can better determine if that intent can be transferred to a resulting crime.

Transferred Intent Example Involving an Angry Landowner

An example of transferred intent being contemplated by a court of law traces all the way back to 1894. On September 17, 1891, Charles Smith noticed a few of the neighborhood boys hanging out on the top of one of his sheds. He asked the boys to get down, and the boys immediately obeyed. However, before the boys could get down to the ground, Smith threw a stick at them, or at least in their direction. The stick measured two inches wide by 16 inches long.

The stick ended up missing the two boys Smith was allegedly aiming for, and hit a third boy, George Talmage’s son, right above his eye. The stick landed with such force that it caused the boy to go blind in that eye. Smith claimed not to have seen the Talmage boy, and that may have been the case, but others later stated that he was certainly visible from where Smith was standing.

Talmage’s father sued Smith for damages, and at the trial Smith’s counsel argued that Smith did not intend to hit anyone when he threw the stick. Further, counsel continued, if Smith did not know that Talmage was there, then Smith could not be held liable for injuring him.

Interestingly, the case proceeded to trial despite the fact that the parties had previously engaged in a conversation wherein they agreed to settle the matter for a certain amount of money. This conversation came to light during testimony given in the matter, however the circuit judge instructed the jury to disregard the conversation, and that the settlement proposition discussed between the parties should have no bearing on the jury’s decision. The judge further instructed the jury in this manner:

“If you conclude that Smith did not know the Talmage boy was on the shed, and that he did not intend to hit Smith, or the young man that was with him, but simply, by throwing the stick, intended to frighten Smith and the other young man that was there, and the club hit Talmage, and injured him, as claimed, then the plaintiff could not recover… But if you conclude from the evidence in the case that he threw the stick, intending to hit Smith, or the young man with him … and that that force was unreasonable force, under all the circumstances, then Smith … would be doing an unlawful act, if the force was unreasonable, because he had no right to use it … He would be liable, then, for the injury done to this boy with the stick, if he threw it intending to hit the young man Smith, or the young man that was with Smith on the roof, and the force that he was using, by the throwing of the club, was excessive and unreasonable, under all the circumstances of the case … if it was unreasonable and excessive, then he would be liable for the consequences of it, because he was doing an unlawful act in the outset; that is, he was using … excessive force against Smith and the young man to get them off the shed.”

A land owner is permitted by law to use reasonable force to convince a trespasser to leave the premises. Therefore, the issue here was whether Smith had used excessive force. The trial court found that Smith indeed used excessive force, and that there did exist a transferred intent.

Smith appealed the case to the Michigan Supreme Court. The Court affirmed the lower court’s decision, holding that:

“The right of the plaintiff to recover was made to depend upon an intention on the part of the defendant to hit somebody, and to inflict an unwarranted injury upon someone. Under these circumstances, the fact that the injury resulted to another than was intended does not relieve the defendant from responsibility.”

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Assault – A physical attack.
  • Battery – An intentional act that results in harmful or offensive contact with another person.
  • Beyond a Reasonable Doubt – The standard of proof required in a criminal trial: that no other logical explanation exists, given the facts presented, that the accused committed the crime.
  • Defendant – A party against whom a lawsuit has been filed in civil court, or who has been accused of, or charged with, a crime or offense.
  • False ImprisonmentThe unlawful restraint of a person within a limited area, depriving him of his right to freedom of movement. False or unlawful imprisonment applies to that committed by private individuals as well as governmental agencies.
  • Intent – A resolve to perform an act for a specific purpose; a resolution to use a particular means to a specific end.
  • Mens Rea – The intent to do wrong that constitutes part of a crime, as compared to the actual act or conduct of the accused.
  • Tort – An intentional or negligent act, a civil wrong, as opposed to a criminal act, which causes harm to another.
  • Trespass to Land – A crime that is committed when an individual enters the land of another without permission or a legitimate excuse.
  • Trespass to Chattels – A crime that is committed when one party intentionally interferes with another person’s legal possession of a chattel.

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