CRIMINAL RESPONSIBILITY: Meaning of General and Specific Intent In Criminal Law by Adeyemi Oshunrinade


General and Specific Intent: The loose phrases “criminal intent” and “general intent” has not made courts to miss the fact that “intent” in the proper sense, has the same meaning as “intention.” However, in most cases, courts have interpreted intent to denote purpose or design. Sometimes, “general intent” is used in the same way as “criminal intent” or it may be used to indicate all forms of mental state required for an act; “general intent” may also be substituted for the intent to do an act on an undetermined occasion, while “specific intent” may denote the intent to do an act at a particular time and place; or it may be limited to the one mental state of intent.

The attempt to define or assign meaning to the term “intent” has not been without difficulties in criminal law; some writers in the field have tried to assign meaning to the term by defining “intention” as “the attitude of the mind in which the doer of an act adverts to a consequence of the act and desires it to follow. But the doer of an act may advert to a consequence and not desire it: and therefore not intend it.” [See Markby, Elements of Law, § 220 (4th ed. 1989)]

Other writers have expressed that a result is intended only if it is contemplated as a probable consequence whether it is desired or not. [See Austin, Jurisprudence 424 (5th ed. 1985)]. Others such as Salmond require the element of desire but assigned it a somewhat forced construction. According to him, ‘a man desires not only the end but also the means to the end, and hence desires, although he may “deeply regret” the necessity for, the means’. [See Rollins M. Perkins et al, Criminal Law and Procedure (6th ed. 1984) P. 472: In ref. Salmond, Jurisprudence 395 (8th ed. 1930)].

In dealing with cases involving intention, more is required than an expectation that the consequences is likely to result from the act. Put another way, it is not necessary that the consequence be desired though, the element may become important. One who acts for the purpose of causing a result, intends that result whether it is likely to materialize or not; On the other hand, he intends the consequence which he knows would be the result of his act whether he desires it, regrets it or indifferent as to it.

The most common application of “specific intent” is the requirement of a specified intention, a special mental element with respect to the actus reus of the crime. For example, the physical part of the crime of larceny is the “taking” and the “carrying” away of the personal property of another. However, these acts may be done intentionally, deliberately, with full knowledge of all the facts and complete understanding of the wrongfulness of the act without constituting larceny.

Therefore, in addition to the mental element requirement i.e. the “taking” and “carrying” away of the property, it must also be established that the defendant “intended to steal” the property. A defendant may take and carry away the property of another, with the desire to use and return it so, if this unauthorized use of property is done with the intention of returning it, then the state of mind required for the crime of larceny is lacking. For example, one who takes the car of another, with the intention to use and return the vehicle and who did in fact return the vehicle to the owner, may lack the intention to steal or commit a larceny.

Such a defendant may not be criminally liable for larceny but liable only in a civil suit for unauthorized or misuse of property only. For a defendant to be liable criminally under common law larceny he must not only take and carry away other’s property by trespass there must be an additional state of mind, the requisite “intent” to steal. Likewise, common law burglary demands a “breaking” and “entry into the dwelling of another”. The crime may not be defined as the breaking and entry into the dwelling of another in the “nighttime,” because this can be done without committing the felony.

Therefore, in addition to the mental state required for burglary, it must also be established that the defendant acted “with intent to commit a felony;” meaning that to be criminally liable for common law burglary, the defendant in addition to “breaking” and “entering” the dwelling at nighttime, must intend to commit a felony. For example, one who breaks in and enters his neighbor’s house, with the purpose to watch free cable and take a quick nap, is not guilty of burglary if he has no intention to steal; however, he may be liable for the breaking and entering including trespass. This additional requirement is a “specific intent,” necessary to establish guilt of the crime of burglary.

Dr. Adeyemi Oshunrinade [E. JD] is an expert in general law, foreign relations and the United Nations; Follow on Twitter @san0670.

Categories: Criminal Law

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