Lack of Intent

Practice Areas

Intent is probably the single most important element of a crime. Although there are some exceptions, to prove that a crime was committed, the prosecution must present sufficient evidence that the defendant “intended” to do the unlawful act.

Mens Rea

Mens Rea means the guilty mind or the criminal intent. To prove guilt in a criminal trial and the main focus in defending every criminal case is the defendant’s “state of mind” at the time the act (actus reus) was committed. The burden of proof is on the prosecution to prove defendant’s criminal state of mind beyond reasonable doubt.

California Penal Codes and other California statutes specify the requisite mens rea or mental state to prove a particular offense. California statutes usually require either “general intent” or “specific intent” to commit an unlawful act.

Specific Intent Crimes

Some California crimes such as robbery and residential burglary require proof of specific intent to commit the unlawful act and to achieve a desired result. If the defendant acted purposely, knowingly and consciously to achieve a particular result, there is specific intent to commit a crime.  Theft crimes are examples of specific intent crimes. The prosecution must show that the defendant intentionally took another’s property, and that there was a specific intent to permanently deprive the owner of their property.

Malice Aforethought

There is express malice when the defendant committed a crime with deliberate intent to inflict harm on the victim. There is implied malice when the defendant was indifferent in harming his victim who was injured or harmed due to the defendant’s carelessness or indifference.

General Intent Crimes

Some California crimes such as arson, battery and manslaughter are general intent crimes.

General intent crimes don’t require a showing that the defendant intended to inflict a specific harm to the victim or achieve a specific end result. It is enough to show that the defendant intended to do an act which California law considers a crime.

Other forms of proving Criminal State of Mind

To satisfy the mens rea element of the crime, the prosecution may show that the defendant acted with recklessness or gross negligence.


If the defendant acted recklessly with conscious disregard for the safety of a person or the public and caused substantial and unjustified risk, general intent is proven. For example, if you decided to drive your car really fast on a desert highway to have fun and all of a sudden you encounter a herd of cattle and you struck the shepherd killing him, you could be charged with manslaughter. Although you didn’t intend to kill anyone, your conduct was reckless and enough to establish the required mens rea element for the crime of manslaughter.

Gross Negligence

If the defendant acted negligently when a reasonable person in his or her position should have known of the risk and the consequences, there is general intent. To show gross negligence, there must be evidence that the defendant grossly deviated from the standard of care that an ordinary person would use.

Strict Liability Crimes

No guilty state of mind is required to convict a defendant of a strict liability crime. That is because strict liability crimes are proven by a showing that the defendant did the act regardless of whether he acted with the intent to violate the law or whether he was reckless or negligent.

Statutory rape is an example of a strict liability crime. The only question then is the age of the defendant and the age of the victim.

Accident as a Defense

If you intended to set up your fireplace at home and accidently started a fire that burned a large part of your house, there was no intent to commit a crime. There was nothing unlawful about your conduct. It was an unfortunate accident. But it is no accident if the defendant bought life insurance for his wife and was observed pouring gasoline around his own house at midnight which later resulted in burning the house and killing his wife. There is a famous quote by Justice Holmes that “Even a dog knows the difference between being stumbled over and being kicked.” So, jurors are usually very quick in deciding whether there was criminal intent or not. Once the prosecution shows a prima facie case of intent, then the burden shifts to the defendant to show that his conduct was due to an accident. This means the defendant must point to other evidence that negate criminal intent.

Lack of Intent as a Defense

If the prosecution cannot prove the required intent element of the crime, you have a valid defense.  Doing an act involuntarily or based on a mistaken belief without intending the consequences are all ways to raise a defense of lack of intent. Lack of intent, however, is not a complete defense but may result in the reduction of charges to a lower level or it could be used by a powerful Los Angeles Criminal Attorney to mitigate the punishment. California principles of law as they relate to criminal intent are vast and complicated. If you believe you have an innocence claim or if you have been wrongfully accused of a crime, contact us now and our aggressive criminal attorneys will defend you to achieve the best outcome.

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