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CRIMINAL INTENT Definition & Legal Meaning

Definition & Citations:

The intent to commit a crime: malice, as evidenced by a criminal act; an intent to deprive or defraud the true owner of his property. People v. Moore. 3 N. Y. Cr. R. 458.  (source: Black’s Law Dictionary)

Criminal Intent: Overview

Criminal intent is a necessary component of a “conventional” crime and involves a conscious decision on the part of one party to injure or deprive another. It is one of three categories of “mens rea,” the basis for the establishment of guilt in a criminal case. There are multiple shades of criminal intent that may be applied in situations ranging from outright premeditation to spontaneous action.

It is possible to establish criminal intent even when a crime is not premeditated. Individuals who commit a crime spontaneously may still understand that their actions will cause harm to another party and contravene existing criminal law. In other words, an individual that takes or withholds action with the knowledge that such behavior will lead to the commission of a crime can be said to possess criminal intent.

Criminal Intent: What You Should Know

While criminal intent is a necessary component of mens rea in virtually every modern legal system, its particulars may vary between jurisdictions. There often exists a distinction between “basic intent” and “specific intent.”

Since it requires a lighter burden of proof, the former is used more often to establish criminal intent. For instance, an individual who strikes a pedestrian crossing the street in a marked crosswalk can be said to have exhibited “basic intent” whether or not they intended to cause the pedestrian harm. There are two reasons for this. First, the driver may have ignored state and local law requiring vehicles to yield to pedestrians in crosswalks. Absent such laws, the driver either failed to pay close attention to the road ahead or assumed that the pedestrian would be able to avoid their oncoming vehicle. In either case, the driver abdicated their legal responsibility to take reasonable precautions to ensure the safety of others on the road.

“Specific intent” is invoked less frequently and often applies to cases in which the accused intends to commit a crime but has not yet done so. It may be used to justify preventive detentions associated with terrorism, treason or sabotage. For instance, an individual who has communicated his intent to assassinate an official may be judged to exhibit specific intent on the basis of his or her pronouncements.

Criminal intent may be further categorized as either “direct” or “oblique.” Defined as a desire to commit a specific act in the expectation that it will result in a specific outcome, the former may be used to prove premeditation. For instance, an individual who purchases a firearm and uses it in a mugging exhibits direct intent to threaten another with deadly force.

By contrast, “oblique” intent may be used to establish guilt in cases that involve unintended consequences. An individual who undertakes a specific action with the knowledge that it may cause certain consequences can be said to have oblique intent. For instance, an individual who injures someones by firing a gun into the air near a crowd may be held responsible for that injury despite a lack of direct intent to cause harm.

Video on Criminal Intent


This article contains general legal information but does not constitute professional legal advice for your particular situation. The Law Dictionary is not a law firm, and this page does not create an attorney-client or legal adviser relationship. If you have specific questions, please consult a qualified attorney licensed in your jurisdiction.