In common law, there is typically a distinction between crimes committed with specific intent and those committed with general intent.
In the State of California, certain criminal offenses are referred to as "specific intent crimes." If you're charged with one of these crimes, the prosecutor has a higher burden of proof showing that you did not only willfully commit a crime but intended to cause harm.
This benefits you as a defendant because it's not enough to show that you broke the law—prosecutors must also show that you had a specific intent.
Simply put, specific intent crimes are those offenses where a prosecutor must prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the defendant intended to commit a certain harm.
Conversely, general intent crimes are offenses where a prosecutor simply has to show that a defendant committed a criminal act. This means there is no concern as to whether they actually intended to produce the specific result of that act. Some examples of general intent crimes are Penal Code 240 PC assault and Penal Code 242 PC battery.
Some standard terms connected with these types of crimes are “actus reus” (physical act) and “mens rea,” which is the mental state of the defendant. Simply put, a specific intent crime is where the defendant must both intend to commit an unlawful act and specifically intend to violate the law.
This means a primary focus is on a defendant's state of mind, and criminal intent becomes a mental element of the crime. Some statutes will give the requisite intent that a defendant must have had when they committed a crime to be guilty of that offense. Specific intent crimes can be either misdemeanors or felonies.
Understanding Specific Intent versus General Intent
To understand this concept better, let's discuss the difference between specific and general intent crimes under California law.
Specific Intent Crimes
Specific intent crimes are those in which the prosecution must show the perpetrator has a particular purpose or objective in mind when committing the criminal act.
In other words, not only do they intend to commit the act, but they also intend for a certain outcome due to their actions. A prominent example of a specific intent crime would be Penal Code 187 PC murder, in which prosecutors must prove that you killed someone and meant to kill them.
General Intent Crimes
On the other hand, general intent crimes do not require a specific intent to cause harm or achieve a particular result. Instead, prosecutors must only prove that the act occurred or that you intended to commit the criminal act itself with no specific intended result.
An excellent example of a general intent crime is California Vehicle Code 23152 VC DUI because prosecutors don't have to show you intended to drive drunk—only that you willfully drove and that you happened to be intoxicated at the time.
Similarly, Penal Code 240 PC simple assault is a general intent crime—prosecutors must only show you willfully tried to exert force on a person, but they don't have to show that you meant to harm them in the process.
Another way to explain the difference between specific and general intent is with the legal concepts of actus reus and mens rea.
- Actus reus refers to the physical act or unlawful conduct itself, and
- Mens rea refers to the accused's mental state when committing the act.
With general intent crimes, prosecutors must only prove actus reus—that you acted willfully to commit the physical act of the crime.
With specific intent, prosecutors must prove both actus reus (the crime happened) and mens rea (your state of mind was that you intended to cause harm).
Other Examples of Specific Intent Crimes in California
There are numerous criminal offenses on California's law books for which prosecutors must prove specific intent to obtain a conviction. These offenses include, but are not limited to, the following.
Petty Theft – Penal Code 484(a) PC
Petty theft is a specific intent crime because the accused must have intended to deprive the owner of their property permanently. The specific intent is the intention to steal, which goes beyond merely taking someone else's property.
Burglary – Penal Code 459 PC
California's definition of burglary requires an intention to enter a building and commit a crime therein. Prosecutors must show that the accused intended to commit a theft or felony once inside the structure.
Forgery – Penal Code 470 PC
Similarly, forgery is a specific intent crime because defendants must intend to defraud someone by falsely creating or altering a document with the intention of passing it off as genuine. The specific intent, in this case, is to deceive another person.
While PC 470 uses the language “intent to defraud,” other common intents listed within some statutes include that the defendant acted knowingly, purposely, willfully, or recklessly.
Lewd or Lascivious Acts with a Minor – Penal Code 288 PC
This crime, along with other forms of child molestation, is a specific intent crime. To obtain a conviction, prosecutors must prove that the accused not only engaged in sexual acts with a minor but also had the specific intent to arouse themselves or the child. This is opposed to touching a child's genitals while giving them a bath.
How Can You Determine Intent?
Determining intent in specific intent crimes can be complex. California courts use various tests to assess intent, focusing on the accused's actions and circumstances surrounding the crime.
One common method is the "reasonable person" test, which considers what a reasonable person would have intended under similar circumstances. If a reasonable person would foresee that their actions could lead to a particular outcome, the court may infer specific intent.
Another approach is evaluating direct and circumstantial evidence, such as statements made by the accused or actions that indicate planning or premeditation.
Since these crimes focus on a particular intent, a common defense is for a criminal defense attorney to argue that the defendant did not act with the intent listed in the statute. For example, in a PC 470 forgery case, a defense attorney might be able to argue that the defendant did not intend to defraud.
Contact our law firm to review the case details and to discuss legal options. Eisner Gorin LLP has offices in Los Angeles, California.