Specific Intent Crimes vs. General Intent Crimes

There is a very important concept in the application of criminal law: Intent. Most criminal acts require an element of intent, otherwise the act is generally one of negligence. (Some crimes, while not requiring intent, are criminal because the conduct was criminally negligent, but that is not the subject of this post.)

Whether a crime is one of specific or general intent may be a crucial factor in defense of the crime.  Generally, when a crime is defined as an act without intent to achieve a further result, the crime is said to be a general intent crime. For example, the crime of assault is a general intent crime because it is committed for its own end. A specific intent crime is a criminal act that is carried out with the intent to achieve an additional result. Burglary is a classic example of a specific intent crime. Burglary is the act of entering a structure with the intent of committing a theft or any felony.

Not all laws make the distinction as clearly as the burglary law does and it is not always apparent whether a crime is a general or specific intent law. For many crimes, the courts have offered decisions on whether a crime is a general or specific intent crime, but as the California Supreme Court has recognized the terms “specific and general intent” crimes have been difficult to apply. (People v. Hood (1969) 1 Cal.3d 444, 456,) The Court has also cautioned that the “rote application” of general or specific intent should be avoided. (People v. Hering (1999) 20 Cal.4th 440, 445.)

The distinction becomes important for the defense when the crime is either clearly a specific intent crime, such as burglary, theft, or forgery (and others) or when the crime is not clearly one of specific intent but may be construed as such. Furthermore, all attempt crimes require specific intent to commit the crime that was attempted but not completed.  The crucial element in defending a specific intent crime is the defendant’s state of mind: Did he or she intend to commit the additional act?

Example: Marty, after a night of drinking, stumbled back to his hotel room in Huntington Beach where he was vacationing. He couldn’t remember his room number and in his inebriated state, he just went from door to door trying his electronic key. He came upon a room where the door was slightly ajar and feeling an urgent need to relieve himself, he walked in and headed straight for the bathroom. He then stumbled to the bed where he fell asleep. The occupant of the room returned and found Marty on the bed. She called 911 and Marty was arrested for burglary. By time the cops showed up, Marty had been awakened and was found in the room arguing with its occupant, who was quite panic-stricken.

Marty entered the room without permission, but he didn’t intend to commit a theft or a felony. But the police who arrested him operated on the presumption that Marty intended to commit a crime, perhaps theft, perhaps rape, or another felony. To build a defense, Marty’s Orange County criminal defense attorney must convince the trier of fact that there was no evidence that Marty intended to commit a theft or other felony when he entered the hotel room. Here the task is fairly easy since Marty was initially found by the room occupant asleep on the bed. If Marty intended to commit a crime by entering the room, would he have passed out on the bed? In this case, Marty’s defense attorney may very be able to get the district attorney to dismiss the charge or reduce the charge to something like drunk in public. The evidence is not always as clear cut as in this example, but the illustration demonstrates why it is crucial to 1) determine if a charged crime is a specific intent crime and 2) if it is, carefully analyze what the evidence shows regarding the intent of the defendant.

Orange County criminal defense attorney William Weinberg has over 25 years’ experience defending specific intent crimes. He is available for a complimentary consultation wherein he will examine the evidence leading to the arrest and charge(s) against you and will advise you of his assessment of your options.  He may be reached by calling his Irvine office at 949-474-8008 or by emailing him at bill@williamweinberg.com.