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Ask the Attorney: Anatomy of a Crime

Q: I was charged with a crime. What will a prosecutor have to prove in order to convict me?

Although the specific elements of a given criminal offense vary depending on the crime, or even depending on the place where the crime was committed, crimes generally consist of two fundamental pieces: action and intention. 

Among lawyers and other lovers of the Latin tongue, these concepts are often referred to respectively as the actus reus and the mens rea. 

The action component of a crime is what most people think of as the crime itself. It is the actual bad behavior that society has deemed unacceptable, and thus punishable as a crime. 

The actus reus can be a single act, such as causing the death of another person, or it can involve multiple steps, such as driving at 60 miles per hour in an area with a 45 mile per hour speed limit.  In this case, the prosecution would not only have to prove the driver’s speed, but also that it exceeded the speed limit in the area where the citation was given.

The intention component of a crime examines the mental state of the alleged criminal. It raises questions such as, “Did she do it on purpose, or was she merely acting without regard for the safety of others?” 

As with the actus reus, the mens rea varies from crime to crime. Some crimes require a perpetrator to know exactly what she is doing, and intend to produce the consequences of her actions, while others ignore a perpetrator’s criminal intent entirely. 

Such crimes are known as strict liability offenses, because simply performing the illegal act is sufficient to establish the commission of the crime. For example, a speeding driver cannot get a citation thrown out in court merely by arguing he did not know the speed limit, and thus did not intend to commit the offense.

From an attorney’s perspective, these two components of a crime form the basis of a defense or prosecution. The prosecution must establish beyond a reasonable doubt that the perpetrator committed every element of the actus reus with the required level of criminal intent. 

The defense attorney, meanwhile, must try to poke holes in the prosecution’s argument by either outright disproving or inserting reasonable doubt into the prosecution’s theory of criminal action and intention. 

In some ways, the defense attorney has an easier job. The prosecution must prove all the pieces of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt, whereas the defense can succeed by showing that a reasonable doubt exists as to only a single piece of the puzzle. 

(This article is intended as a discussion of legal topics that are often confusing to many lay people; it is not, and should not be relied on, as legal advice. Attorney Jesse White is licensed to practice solely in Pennsylvania and any information discussed relates solely to Pennsylvania law. If you have a general question for the Ask the Attorney column, contact The Law Office of Jesse White in Cecil at 724-743-4444 or visit www.jessewhitelaw.com.)

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