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Intent generally refers to the mental objective behind an action. The concept of intent is often the focal point of Criminal Law and is generally shown by circumstantial evidence such as the acts or knowledge of the defendant.

In Criminal Law, criminal intent, also known as mens rea, is one of two elements that must be proven in order to secure a conviction (the other being the actual act, or actus reus). Some jurisdictions further classify intent into general and specific. It is sometimes difficult to draw a clear distinction between these modes of intent, but the Supreme Court has held that general intent corresponds loosely with knowledge of a crime whereas specific intent refers to the purpose behind committing it.

Drawing this distinction is important because they carry different standards of proof. For general intent, the prosecution need only prove that the defendant intended to do the act in question, whereas proving specific intent would require the prosecution to prove that the defendant intended to bring about a specific consequence through his or her actions, or that he or she perform the action with a wrongful purpose. It is worth noting that due to the confusion surrounding general and specific intent, some jurisdictions have adopted the Model Penal Code's approach of demonstrating intent by showing the degree of certainty a defendant had that his or her conduct would cause a certain result.

In California, it is generally presumed that the defendant intended to perform an act which he or she has done. However, for crimes that require specific intent, that intent must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. For example, for a conviction in attempted murder, which requires proof of specific intent to kill, a prosecution cannot rely on the fact that the defendant performed the act of killing in order to presume that the defendant had acted with an intention to kill. The defendant, for example, might have acted out of self-defense, therefore negating the required intent because the killing was done out of protection and not the desire to take the victims life. 

Intent is also sometimes the focal point of contracts when a court is determining either the presence of a contract or interpreting a contract's condition(s). In these situations, courts find the objective intent of the parties by looking to the language used in the contract when it was formed; the subjective or secret intent of parties is ignored. If the language of the contract is ambiguous, under the Parol Evidence Rule, courts can consider extrinsic evidence when determining the intent of the parties.

In Administrative Law, courts also have the authority to determine legislative intent for the purposes of statutory construction. In doing so, courts primarily look to the language of the statute as understood when codified. It is worth noting that courts sometimes look to omissions of certain language as an indication of legislative intent as well. Courts also consider circumstances under which the statute was enacted, purpose, and legislative history.

[Last updated in June of 2020 by the Wex Definitions Team]