Criminal intent must be formed before the act, and it must unite with the act. It need not exist for any given length of time before the act; the intent and the act can be as instantaneous as simultaneous or successive thoughts.
A jury may be permitted to infer criminal intent from facts that would lead a reasonable person to believe that it existed. For example, the intent to commit Burglary may be inferred from the accused's possession of tools for picking locks.
Criminal intent may also be presumed from the commission of the act. That is, the prosecution may rely on the presumption that a person intends the Natural and Probable Consequences of his or her voluntary acts. For example, the intent to commit murder may be demonstrated by the particular voluntary movement that caused the death, such as the pointing and shooting of a firearm. A defendant may rebut this presumption by introducing evidence showing a lack of criminal intent. In the preceding example, if the murder defendant reasonably believed that the firearm was actually a toy, evidence showing that belief might rebut the presumption that death was intended.
Proof of general criminal intent is required for the conviction of most crimes. The intent element is usually fulfilled if the defendant was generally aware that he or she was very likely committing a crime. This means that the prosecution need not prove that the defendant was aware of all of the elements constituting the crime. For example, in a prosecution for the possession of more than a certain amount of a controlled substance, it is not necessary to prove that the defendant knew the precise quantity. Other examples of general-intent crimes are Battery, rape, Kidnapping, and False Imprisonment.
Some crimes require a Specific Intent. Where specific intent is an element of a crime, it must be proved by the prosecution as an independent fact. For example, Robbery is the taking of property from another's presence by force or threat of force. The intent element is fulfilled only by evidence showing that the defendant specifically intended to steal the property. Unlike general intent, specific intent may not be inferred from the commission of the unlawful act. Examples of specific-intent crimes are solicitation, attempt, conspiracy, first-degree premeditated murder, assault, Larceny, robbery, burglary, forgery, false pretense, and Embezzlement.
Most criminal laws require that the specified crime be committed with knowledge of the act's criminality and with criminal intent. However, some statutes make an act criminal regardless of intent. When a statute is silent as to intent, knowledge of criminality and criminal intent need not be proved. Such statutes are called Strict Liability laws. Examples are laws forbidding the sale of alcohol to minors, and Statutory Rape laws.
The doctrine of transferred intent is another nuance of criminal intent. Transferred intent occurs where one intends the harm that is actually caused, but the injury occurs to a different victim or object. To illustrate, the law allows prosecution where the defendant intends to burn one house but actually burns another instead. The concept of transferred intent applies to Homicide, battery, and Arson.
Felony-murder statutes evince a special brand of transferred intent. Under a felony-murder statute, any death caused in the commission of, or in an attempt to commit, a predicate felony is murder. It is not necessary to prove that the defendant intended to kill the victim. For example, a death resulting from arson will give rise to a murder charge even though the defendant intentionally set the structure on fire without intending to kill a human being. Furthermore, the underlying crime need not have been the direct cause of the death. In the arson example, the victim need not die of burns; a fatal heart attack will trigger a charge of felony murder. In most jurisdictions, a death resulting from the perpetration of certain felonies will constitute first-degree murder. Such felonies usually include arson, robbery, burglary, rape, and kidnapping.
Malice is a state of mind that compels a person to deliberately cause unjustifiable injury to another person. At Common Law, murder was the unlawful killing of one human being by another with malice aforethought, or a predetermination to kill without legal justification or excuse. Most jurisdictions have omitted malice from statutes, in favor of less-nebulous terms to describe intent, such as purpose and knowing.
Massachusetts, for example, has retained malice as an element in criminal prosecutions. Under the General Laws of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Chapter 265, Section 1, malice is an essential element of first- and second-degree murder. According to the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts malice is a mental state that "includes any unexcused intent to kill, to do grievous bodily harm, or to do an act creating a plain and strong likelihood that death or grievous harm will follow" (Commonwealth v. Huot, 403 N.E.2d 411 ).
Motives are the causes or reasons that induce a person to form the intent to commit a crime. They are not the same as intent. Rather, they explains why the person acted to violate the law. For example, knowledge that one will receive insurance funds upon the death of another may be a motive for murder, and sudden financial difficulty may be motive for embezzlement or burglary.
Proof of a motive is not required for the conviction of a crime. The existence of a motive is immaterial to the matter of guilt when that guilt is clearly established. However, when guilt is not clearly established, the presence of a motive might help to establish it. If a prosecution is based entirely on Circumstantial Evidence, the presence of a motive might be persuasive in establishing guilt; likewise, the absence of a motive might support a finding of innocence.