criminal intent

Primary tabs

Criminal intent, also known as mens rea, refers to the mental state required to convict a party of a crime. Along with a criminal act, or the actus reus, criminal intent is one of the fundamental aspects of criminal law

The specific intent required to sustain a conviction varies from crime to crime and from state to state. In states that follow the Model Penal Code (MPC) or use MPC terminology, criminal intent is split into four categories: 

  1. Acting purposely – The goal of the defendant was to cause the criminal conduct. 
  2. Acting knowingly – The defendant was practically certain that the conduct would cause a particular result
  3. Acting recklessly – The defendant consciously disregarded a substantial and unjustified risk that the criminal conduct would occur. 
  4. Acting negligently – The defendant was not aware of the risk criminal conduct would occur but should have been aware of the risk.

In jurisdictions that follow MPC, each crime will have an associated level of criminal intent necessary to sustain the conviction. For example, standard murder typically requires a party to purposefully or knowingly cause the death of another human. Therefore, a party who only negligently causes the death of another human cannot be found guilty of murder because the criminal intent was lacking. 

Generally, penalties for the same conduct increase the higher you travel up the mental state/specific intent list. For example, manslaughter, which requires recklessly or negligently killing another human, is punished less harshly than murder. Additionally, a higher mental state can substitute for a lower one. A party who purposefully kills another human can still be found guilty of manslaughter even though their criminal intent was purposeful rather than reckless. 

A minority of states instead choose to follow common law doctrines of malice. These jurisdictions determine liability by categorizing the type of malice accompanying any given criminal action between: 

  • Express malice – deliberate intent to bring harm to the victim. 
  • Implied malice – Indifference to harm that a victim may suffer due to the defendant's carelessness or inattentiveness. 

[Last updated in July of 2022 by the Wex Definitions Team]