One of the most misunderstood elements in criminal prosecutions is the element of intent. The justice system has an intent elements for most crimes, requiring that the conduct criminalized was in some way the conscious fault of the defendant, done on purpose, or if done by accident, that the defendant had failed to take steps most law abiding people would do. Generally speaking, when drafting criminal statutes, our legislature has tried to avoid punishing people for circumstances that were outside of their control.
The most common intent requirement is that the conduct done was done "knowingly, intentionally, recklessly, or negligently." A person acts intentionally when it is their conscious object to do what they did, and they were aware of the circumstances surrounding the act that would help them reach their conscious goal. A person acts knowingly when they are aware of the circumstances and know that it is practically certain that their actions will have the desired effect. A person acts recklessly when they consciously disregard a substantial risk that their conduct will result in the commission of the criminal offense. Finally, a person acts negligently when they should have been aware of a substantial and unjustifiable risk (whether they actually knew about it or not) and failed to act reasonably to avoid it. This requires a gross deviation from what a reasonable person would do in that situation.
For illustrative purposes, a gross oversimplification of the above requirements involving hitting someone with your car is as follows. If you see someone, think to yourself "I want to hurt that guy so I'm going to hit him with my car" and then you do hit them with your car, you have acted intentionally. Now, if for some reason you decide "I'm going to hit this guy with my car, but I don't particularly care if he gets hurt or not," then you have acted knowingly. In the alternative, lets say you're driving 150 mph on the freeway blindfolded and hit somebody, your state of mind may be described as reckless. You know that this is risky behavior that can result in you hurting somebody, but you did it anyway. Finally, if you do the same 150 mph blindfolded driving act, but then testify "oh, I had no idea that was risky" your conduct at the very least is negligent. You should've known the risk there, and any reasonable person would have known that.
Most times it is impossible to know exactly what a person was thinking when they committed a crime. Therefore standard jury instructions are given that instruct the jury that intent can be established by circumstantial evidence, meaning you take into account the surrounding circumstances. The burden is on the Commonwealth to prove intent beyond a reasonable doubt. Crimes with an intent element may have affirmative defenses that negate the required intent element
If you or a loved one has been charged with a criminal offense where intent is an issue, don't just plead guilty without an attorney. A determination of actual culpability is a legal issue and you should seek the advice of a qualified professional to advise you. Attorney Frank Walker is here to help! Don't just plead guilty when its not your fault! Call (412) 532-6805 today.
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