Specific Intent

Specific Intent

The mental purpose, aim, or design to accomplish a specific harm or result by acting in a manner prohibited by law.

The term specific intent is commonly used in criminal and Tort Law to designate a special state of mind that is required, along with a physical act, to constitute certain crimes or torts. Specific intent is usually interpreted to mean intentionally or knowingly. Common-law Larceny, for example, requires both the physical act of taking and carrying away the property of another and the mental element of intent to steal the property. Similarly, common-law Burglary requires breaking and entering into the dwelling of another with an intent to commit a felony therein. These crimes and others that require a specific-intent element are called specific-intent crimes and are distinguished from general-intent crimes. General-intent crimes require only a showing that the defendant intended to do the act prohibited by law, not that the defendant intended the precise harm or the precise result that occurred.

Courts have defined specific intent as the subjective desire or knowledge that the prohibited result will occur (People v. Owens, 131 Mich. App. 76, 345 N.W.2d 904 [1983]). Intent and motive are commonly confused, but they are distinct principles and differentiated in the law. Motive is the cause or reason that prompts a person to act or fail to act. Intent refers only to the state of mind with which the act is done or omitted. Because intent is a state of mind, it can rarely be proved with direct evidence and ordinarily must be inferred from the facts of the case. Evidence of intent is always admissible to prove a specific-intent crime, but evidence of motive is only admissible if it tends to help prove or negate the element of intent.

Courts generally allow a wide range of direct and Circumstantial Evidence to be introduced at trial in order to prove the difficult element of criminal or tortious intent. In addition, the doctrine of presumed intent may be helpful in proving specific intent because it holds individuals accountable for all the Natural and Probable Consequences of their acts.

A defendant may testify at trial as to his intent. Whether the defendant intended to break the law does not matter, however; rather, the issue is whether he intended to do that which is unlawful. For example, a defendant may maintain that he took money without permission in order to buy food for his hungry children and that he intended to repay the money. In such a case, the defendant's intent to repay the money does not negate the fact that he intentionally took money that did not belong to him without permission. In addition, it does not matter that he planned to feed his children with the money, because that is his motive in acting, not his intent.

An individual will be guilty or liable for a crime or tort if she had the intent to commit the crime or tort, even though the intended injury occurred in an unexpected way. For example, suppose that an assassin tries to shoot a person but misses and hits an automobile gasoline tank. If the tank explodes and kills the intended victim, the assassin is still guilty of murder even though the victim's death did not occur in the manner intended.

A defendant still possessed the element of intent even though his intended act could not possibly have succeeded as planned. Suppose, for example, that a burglar intended to break into a house and steal an original painting. Once he broke in, however, he discovered that the painting had been removed or that it was just a print and not an original painting at all. The burglar still had the necessary intent for burglary.

Because specific intent is an essential element in proving many torts and crimes, defendants often argue that they did not possess the specific intent required and therefore are not guilty or liable for the crime or tort committed. In fact, most jurisdictions recognize by statute or case law certain defenses to the formation of specific intent. For example, a defendant may argue that at the time a crime was committed she was intoxicated and that her mental impairment kept her from formulating the specific intent to commit the crime. Voluntary intoxication is not a defense to the commission of general-intent crimes, but in many jurisdictions it is a defense to specific-intent crimes. In other jurisdictions voluntary intoxication is never a defense to the commission of a crime. Most jurisdictions permit the defense of involuntary intoxication even if they do not recognize voluntary intoxication. Courts generally permit expert witness testimony on the issue of whether the defendant had the ability to form specific intent.

Further readings

Abate, Randall S., and Dayna E. Mancuso. 2001. "It's All About What You Know: The Specific Intent Standard Should Govern 'Knowing;' Violations of the Clean Water Act." New York University Environmental Law Journal 9 (January).

Cochran, Ryan. 2000. "'Failure to File' Syndrome: Lawyers, Accountants and Specific Intent." Cumberland Law Review 30 (spring).Hanley, Julian R., and Wayne W. Schmidt. 1984. Legal Aspects of Criminal Evidence. 3d ed. Berkeley, Calif.: McCutchan.

Rob, Edith M. 1994. "A Question of 'Intent'—Intent and Motive Distinguished." Army Lawyer. Department of the Army pamphlet 27-50-261, August.

Torcia, Charles E. 1994. Wharton's Criminal Law. 15th ed. Vol. 2. St. Paul, Minn.: West Group.


Criminal Law; Tort Law.

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