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An undertaking to do an act that entails more than mere preparation but does not result in the successful completion of the act.

In Criminal Law, an attempt to commit a crime is an offense when an accused makes a substantial but unsuccessful effort to commit a crime. The elements of attempt vary, although generally, there must be an intent to commit the crime, an Overt Act beyond mere preparation, and an apparent ability to complete the crime.

Generally, attempts are punishable by imprisonment, with sentence lengths that vary in time, depending upon the severity of the offense attempted.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


v. and n. to actually try to commit a crime and have the ability to do so. This means more than just thinking about doing a criminal act or planning it without overt action. It also requires the opportunity and ability. Attempts can include attempted murder, attempted robbery, attempted rape, attempted forgery, attempted arson, and a host of other crimes. The person accused cannot attempt to commit murder with an unloaded gun or attempt rape over the telephone. The attempt becomes a crime in itself, and usually means one really tried to commit the crime, but failed through no fault of himself or herself. Example: if a husband laces his wife's cocktail with cyanide, it is no defense that by chance the intended victim decided not to drink the deadly potion. One defendant claimed he could not attempt rape in an old Model A coupe because it was too cramped to make the act possible. The court threw out this defense. Sometimes a criminal defendant is accused of both the crime (e.g. robbery) and the attempt in case the jury felt he tried but did not succeed.

Copyright © 1981-2005 by Gerald N. Hill and Kathleen T. Hill. All Right reserved.


an attempted crime is one that is not completed. Because the criminal law focuses so much on the mental state of the offender, it has long been established that a mere failure to carry through the act intended by the wrongdoer will not allow him to escape criminal liability. To be criminal, matters must have progressed from preparation to perpetration: thus, the purchase of a mask and a glass-cutting tool maybe insufficient whereas wandering the streets at night, mask on face and cutter in hand, might be enough. A hand in a pocket, which never reaches the wallet, is an attempted theft.

In England, the common law was supplemented by statute to create a statutory offence of attempt. This applies to any act that is done with intent to commit an indictable offence and is more than merely preparatory. It is a crime even to attempt the impossible.

In Scotland, in terms of statute all attempts to commit a crime are criminal offences. It is attempted theft even if there is nothing in the pocket to steal, although it was held not possible to attempt to procure an abortion by supplying the necessary materials where the woman was not in fact pregnant.

Collins Dictionary of Law © W.J. Stewart, 2006

ATTEMPT, criminal law. An attempt to commit a crime, is an endeavor to accomplish it, carried beyond mere preparation, but falling short of execution of the ultimate design, in any part of it.
     2. Between preparations and attempts to commit a crime, the distinction is in many cases, very indeterminate. A man who buys poison for the purpose of committing a murder, and mixes it in the food intended for his victim, and places it on a table where he may take it, will or will not be guilty of an attempt to poison, from the simple circumstance of his taking back the poisoned food before or after the victim has had an opportunity to take it; for if immediately on putting it down, he should take it up, and, awakened to a just consideration of the enormity of the crime, destroy it, this would amount only to preparations and certainly if before he placed it on the table, or before he mixed the poison with the food, he had repented of his intention there would have been no attempt to commit a crime; the law gives this as a locus penitentiae. An attempt to commit a crime is a misdemeanor; and an attempt to commit a misdemeanor, is itself a misdemeanor. 1 Russ. on Cr. 44; 2 East, R. 8; 3 Pick. R. 26; 3 Benth. Ev. 69; 6 C. & P. 368.

A Law Dictionary, Adapted to the Constitution and Laws of the United States. By John Bouvier. Published 1856.
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