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A determination to perform a particular act or to act in a particular manner for a specific reason; an aim or design; a resolution to use a certain means to reach an end.

Intent is a mental attitude with which an individual acts, and therefore it cannot ordinarily be directly proved but must be inferred from surrounding facts and circumstances. Intent refers only to the state of mind with which the act is done or omitted. It differs from motive, which is what prompts a person to act or to fail to act. For example, suppose Billy calls Amy names and Amy throws a snowball at him. Amy's intent is to hit Billy with a snowball. Her motive may be to stop Billy's taunts.

The legal importance of what an individual intended depends on the particular area of law. In contract law, for example, the intention of the parties to a written contract is fixed by the language of the contract document.

In Tort Law, intent plays a key role in determining the civil liability of persons who commit harm. An intentional tort is any deliberate invasion of, or interference with, the property, property rights, personal rights, or personal liberties of another that causes injuries without Just Cause or excuse. In tort an individual is considered to intend the consequences of an act—whether or not she or he actually intends those consequences—if the individual is substantially certain that those consequences will result.

Basic intentional torts include Assault and Battery, conversion of property, false arrest, False Imprisonment, Fraud, intentional infliction of emotional distress, invasion of privacy, and Trespass. It is ordinarily not necessary that any wrongful or illegal means be used to accomplish the negative result, provided the wrongful conduct was intentional and was not accompanied by excuse or justification.

In Criminal Law the concept of criminal intent has been called mens rea, which refers to a criminal or wrongful purpose. If a person innocently causes harm, then she or he lacks mens rea and, under this concept, should not be criminally prosecuted.

Although the concept of mens rea is generally accepted, problems arise in applying it to particular cases. Some crimes require a very high degree of intent, whereas others require substantially less. Larceny, for example, requires that the defendant intentionally take property to which the person knows he or she is not entitled, intending to deprive the rightful owner of possession permanently. On the other hand, negligent homicide requires only that the defendant negligently cause another's death.

Criminal law has attempted to clarify the intent requirement by creating the concepts of "specific intent" and "general intent." Specific Intent refers to a particular state of mind that seeks to accomplish the precise act that the law prohibits—for example, a specific intent to commit rape. Sometimes it means an intent to do something beyond that which is done, such as assault with intent to commit rape. The prosecution must show that the defendant purposely or knowingly committed the crime at issue.

General intent refers to the intent to do that which the law prohibits. It is not necessary for the prosecution to prove that the defendant intended the precise harm or the precise result that occurred. Thus, in most states, a defendant who kills a person with a gun while intoxicated, to the extent that the defendant is not aware of having a gun, will be guilty of second-degree murder. The law will infer that the defendant had a general intent to kill.

Criminal law dispenses with the intent requirement in many property-related crimes. Under Common Law the prosecution had to establish that the defendant intended to steal or destroy property. By 1900 many statutes eliminated the "intent-to-defraud" requirement for property crimes. Passing a bad check, obtaining property under False Pretenses, selling mortgaged property, and embezzling while holding public office no longer required criminal intent.

Criminal law and tort law share the concept of transferred intent. For example, if A shoots a gun at B, intending to strike B, but the bullet hits C, the intent to strike is transferred to the act of shooting C and supplies the necessary intent for either a criminal conviction or a civil tort action. Under the criminal doctrine of transferred intent, the intent is considered to follow the criminal act regardless of who turns out to be the victim. Under the tort doctrine of transferred intent, the defendant is liable for monetary damages to the unintended victim.

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


n. mental desire and will to act in a particular way, including wishing not to participate. Intent is a crucial element in determining if certain acts were criminal. Occasionally a judge or jury may find that "there was no criminal intent." Example: lack of intent may reduce a charge of manslaughter to a finding of reckless homicide or other lesser crime.

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


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