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1.2: Elements of a Crime


  1. Learn how to recognize elements in a statute.
  2. Learn vocabulary concerning culpable mental states and volitional acts.

1. Elements of a Crime

Criminal statutes usually include a culpable mental state and a culpable act.  The requisite culpable mental state and the culpable act together constitute the elements of the crime.  The state must prove each element beyond a reasonable doubt to convict a person. Beyond a reasonable doubt is the burden of proof on the prosecution.

For example, assume that a statute states, “A person is guilty of arson when he or she intentionally or knowingly damages property of another person without consent of the owner by starting a fire.”  Here, the requisite culpable mental state is intentionally or knowingly and the remaining elements are (i) damaging property; (ii) of another person; (iii) without consent of the owner; by (iv) starting a fire.  If the state fails to prove any element of this crime, the defendant cannot be convicted of arson.

Below we will discuss culpable mental states and culpable acts in more detail.

2. Culpable Mental State

What was the defendant thinking at the time he allegedly committed his crime?  This is an important question in the United States because most criminal laws in the United States will only apply if the defendant committed the crime while in a culpable mental state, traditionally known as mens rea.  As a general rule, if a defendant commits an act without a culpable mental state, the defendant cannot be convicted of a crime. There are, however, some strict liability crimes where no culpable mental state is required. For example, drunk driving – – driving while intoxicated – – does not require a culpable mental state.

Culpable mental states include (i) intentional; (ii) purposeful or knowing; (iii) reckless; and (iv) criminally negligent. 

  • Intentionally:  The defendant deliberately commits the criminal act, desiring its consequences.  If David climbs on an overpass and throws a rock at the windshield of his ex-girlfriend’s car as she drives by, intending to kill her, he has acted intentionally.
  • Purposeful/knowing: A defendant commits an act purposefully or knowingly when he engages in an act, knowing the likely results of his action.  If David climbs on an overpass and deliberately throws a rock at the windshield of his ex-girlfriend’s car passing below, he knows that the rock will likely result in the death of the passengers in the car (along with his ex-girlfriend).  In this case, David acted purposefully or knowingly with respect to the passengers and intentionally as to his ex-girlfriend. 
  • Reckless: A defendant commits an act recklessly when he deliberately disregards the likely consequences of his action.   If David threw rocks from an overpass, but disregarded the possibility that drivers are likely to be killed or hurt, he acted recklessly.
  • Negligence: A defendant who fails to perceive a likely risk that a reasonable person would have perceived may have acted with criminal negligence.  A bartender who serves drinks to an intoxicated driver could be charged with criminal negligence.

Acting intentionally is the highest state of mental culpability.   Knowingly is considered the next highest culpable mental state followed by recklessly.  Criminal negligence is usually the minimum culpable mental state. 

The higher the culpable mental state, the more severe the punishment.  That is, acting intentionally is usually punished more severely than the same underlying act committed with a lower culpable mental state.

3. The Culpable Act

In addition to proving that the defendant acted with a requisite culpable mental state, the state must also prove that the defendant engaged in a voluntary culpable act, traditionally known as actus reus. For example, a defendant who only thinks about committing a crime could not be convicted of any offense because regardless of his mental state he has not engaged in any illegal conduct. 

The culpable act committed by the defendant should be volitional.  An involuntary muscle movement resulting in an injury to another person would not constitute a culpable act. Sleepwalking also would probably not be considered a voluntary act.

4. Burden of Proof

In a criminal case, the prosecution bears the burden of proof. That is, the prosecution must prove that the defendant committed the crime. The defendant does not have to prove anything.

The prosecution not only must prove each element of the crime, but it must also prove each element beyond a reasonable doubt. The “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard means that even if a juror thinks that it is reasonably possible that the defendant is not guilty, the juror must vote to acquit – – vote that the defendant is not guilty. The juror must vote to acquit even if he thinks the defendant is probably guilty. So long as the juror has a reasonable doubt of guilt he cannot convict the defendant.

Jury verdicts in criminal cases must be unanimous. So if one juror is not convinced the defendant is guilty, then the prosecution will lose the case.

5. Answer the Questions