Under United States law
The law of the United States consists of many levels of codified and uncodified forms of law, of which the most important is the United States Constitution, the foundation of the federal government of the United States...
, an element of a crime
or element of an offense
is one of the various facts (collectively, the elements of the offense
) whose proof in the conjunctive (i.e.
, all of whose proof) is a necessary condition for legal proof that a defendant has committed a given crime. (Some elements are phrased in the disjunctive, such that an element may be proven by proving any of multiple facts, but in such a situation the easy fact "[fact A] or [fact B] ... or [fact n
]" becomes the element whose proof is among the necessary conditions for proof of the offense.) Before a court finds a defendant guilty
In law, a verdict is the formal finding of fact made by a jury on matters or questions submitted to the jury by a judge. The term, from the Latin veredictum, literally means "to say the truth" and is derived from Middle English verdit, from Anglo-Norman: a compound of ver and dit In law, a verdict...
of a criminal offense, the prosecution must present evidence that, even when opposed by any evidence the defense may choose to present, is credible and sufficient to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed each element of the particular crime charged. The component parts that make up any particular crime vary depending on the crime.
The basic components of a criminal offense are listed below; generally, each element of an offense falls into one or another of these categories. At common law, conduct could not be considered criminal unless a defendant possessed some level of intention — either purpose, knowledge, or recklessness — with regard to both the nature of his alleged conduct and the existence of the factual circumstances under which the law considered that conduct criminal. However, for some legislatively enacted
Statutory law or statute law is written law set down by a legislature or by a legislator .Statutes may originate with national, state legislatures or local municipalities...
crimes, the most notable example being statutory rape
The phrase statutory rape is a term used in some legal jurisdictions to describe sexual activities where one participant is below the age required to legally consent to the behavior...
, a defendant need not have had any degree of belief or willful disregard as to the existence of certain factual circumstances (such as the age of the accuser
While the phrase age of consent typically does not appear in legal statutes, when used in relation to sexual activity, the age of consent is the minimum age at which a person is considered to be legally competent to consent to sexual acts. The European Union calls it the legal age for sexual...
) that rendered his conduct criminal; such crimes are known as strict liability
In law, strict liability is a standard for liability which may exist in either a criminal or civil context. A rule specifying strict liability makes a person legally responsible for the damage and loss caused by his or her acts and omissions regardless of culpability...
Mental state (Mens rea)
Mens rea is Latin for "guilty mind". In criminal law, it is viewed as one of the necessary elements of a crime. The standard common law test of criminal liability is usually expressed in the Latin phrase, actus non facit reum nisi mens sit rea, which means "the act does not make a person guilty...
refers to the crime's mental elements of the defendant's intent. This is a necessary element—that is, the criminal act must be voluntary or purposeful. Mens rea
is the mental intention (mental fault), or the defendant's state of mind at the time of the offense, sometimes called the guilty mind
. It stems from the ancient maxim of obscure origin, "actus reus non facit reum nisi mens sit reas" that is translated as "the act is not guilty unless the mind is guilty." For example, the mens rea
of aggravated battery
Aggravated battery in criminal law is a more serious form of battery, and is considered a felony. Aggravated battery can be punished by a fine or more than a year in prison in some countries...
is the intention to do serious bodily harm. Mens rea
is almost always a necessary component in order to prove that a criminal act has been committed.
varies depending on the offense. For murder, the mental element requires the defendant acted with "malice aforethought
Malice aforethought is the "premeditation" or "predetermination" that was required as an element of some crimes in some jurisdictions, and a unique element for first-degree or aggravated murder in a few.-Legal history:...
". Others may require proof the act was committed with such mental elements such as "knowingly" or "willfulness
"To make my own decisions whether I am successful or not due to uncontrollable forces" -Troy MorrisonA pragmatic definition of free willFree will is the ability of agents to make choices free from certain kinds of constraints. The existence of free will and its exact nature and definition have long...
" or "recklessness". Arson requires an intent to commit a forbidden act, while others such as murder require an intent to produce a forbidden result. Motive
A motive, in law, especially criminal law, is the cause that moves people to induce a certain action. Motive, in itself, is not an element of any given crime; however, the legal system typically allows motive to be proven in order to make plausible the accused's reasons for committing a crime, at...
, the reason the act was committed, is not the same as mens rea
and the law is not concerned with motive.
Although most legal systems recognize the importance of the guilty mind, or mens rea
, exactly what is meant by this concept varies. The American Law Institute
The American Law Institute was established in 1923 to promote the clarification and simplification of American common law and its adaptation to changing social needs. The ALI drafts, approves, and publishes Restatements of the Law, Principles of the Law, model codes, and other proposals for law...
's Model Penal Code
The Model Penal Code is a statutory text which was developed by the American Law Institute in 1962. The Chief Reporter on the project was Herbert Wechsler. The current form of the MPC was last updated in 1981. The purpose of the MPC was to stimulate and assist legislatures in making an effort to...
has reduced the mental states to four. In general, guilt can be attributed to an individual who acts "purposely," "knowingly," "recklessly," or "negligently." Together or in combination, these four attributes seem basically effective in dealing with most of the common mens rea
Conduct (Actus reus)
All crimes require actus reus
Actus reus, sometimes called the external element or the objective element of a crime, is the Latin term for the "guilty act" which, when proved beyond a reasonable doubt in combination with the mens rea, "guilty mind", produces criminal liability in the common law-based criminal law jurisdictions...
. That is, a criminal act or an unlawful omission of an act, must have occurred. A person cannot be punished for thinking criminal thoughts. This element is based on the problem of standards of proof. How can another person's thoughts be determined and how can criminal thoughts be differentiated from idle thoughts? Further, the law's purview is not to punish criminal ideas but to punish those who act upon those ideas voluntarily.
Unlike thoughts, words can be considered acts in criminal law. For example, threats, perjury
Perjury, also known as forswearing, is the willful act of swearing a false oath or affirmation to tell the truth, whether spoken or in writing, concerning matters material to a judicial proceeding. That is, the witness falsely promises to tell the truth about matters which affect the outcome of the...
In the criminal law, a conspiracy is an agreement between two or more persons to break the law at some time in the future, and, in some cases, with at least one overt act in furtherance of that agreement...
, and solicitation
Literally, solicitation means: 'urgently asking'. It is the action or instance of soliciting; petition; proposal. In criminal law, it most commonly refers to either the act of offering goods or services, or the act of attempting to purchase such goods or services...
are offenses in which words can constitute the element of actus reus
The omission of an act can also constitute the basis for criminal liability.
In general, mens rea
and actus reus
must occur at the same time—that is, the criminal intent must precede or coexist with the criminal act, or in some way activate the act. The necessary mens rea
may not continually be present until the forbidden act is committed, as long as it activated the conduct that produced the criminal act. However, for criminal liability to occur, there must be either overt and voluntary action or a failure to act when physically able as required by statute or law.
Many crimes include an element that actual harm must occur—in other words, causation
Causation is the "causal relationship between conduct and result". That is to say that causation provides a means of connecting conduct with a resulting effect, typically an injury. In criminal law, it is defined as the actus reus from which the specific injury or other effect arose and is...
must be proved. For example, homicide requires a killing, aggravated battery requires serious bodily injury and without this outcome, no crime would have been committed. A causal relationship between conduct and result is demonstrated if the act would not have happened without direct participation of the offender.
Causation is complex to prove. The act may be a "necessary but not sufficient" cause of the criminal harm. Intervening events may have occurred in between the act and the result. Therefore, the cause of the act and the forbidden result must be "proximate", or near in time.