intent | Definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee
Course: Criminal Law

In criminal law, intent refers to the mental state or mindset a person has when committing a crime.

To truly understand a crime, we need to dive into the mind of the person who committed it. Intent acts as our scuba gear for this deep dive. Why? Because it helps us figure out if the person is culpable (or blameworthy) for their actions.

For example, think about two kids throwing rocks. One kid, Billy, throws a rock at a window on purpose to break it. The other kid, Sally, throws a rock, and it accidentally hits the same window. In both cases, a window is broken, but Billy did it on purpose, while Sally did it by accident. Here, the concept of intent helps us understand that Billy is more blameworthy than Sally.

Different Types

When we talk about intent, we mainly refer to two types: specific intent and general intent.

Specific Intent

Specific intent is like having a roadmap. It means a person consciously plans to commit a crime or achieve a certain result. Going back to our example, Billy throwing the rock with the purpose of breaking the window shows such intent. He aimed for a particular outcome: a broken window.

General Intent

General intent, on the other hand, is like driving without a destination in mind. A person is willing to act in a certain way, but they don’t plan for a specific result. Sally, who threw the rock without intending to hit the window, shows general intent. She intended to throw the rock, but she didn’t plan to break anything.

Application in Crimes

Let’s explore how intent works in real-life crimes.

For specific intent, think of theft. A person who steals a wallet from a purse plans to commit the crime and expects a certain outcome: to gain money. This action shows this type of intent.

On the other hand, consider driving under the influence, a general intent crime. A person might get behind the wheel after drinking too much, knowing they’re impaired. They intend to drive, but they don’t plan to cause an accident or hurt someone. If an accident happens, it wasn’t their goal, but they’re still blameworthy due to their decision to drive while impaired.

Why is Intent Important?

Establishing this is crucial in criminal law because it helps determine the appropriate punishment for a crime. If a person had specific intent, they might face a harsher sentence than if they only had general intent. This distinction reflects the principle that the punishment should fit the crime.

The Model Penal Code

In the Model Penal Code (MPC), which is a framework to standardize criminal law across the United States, intent relates closely to the four levels of culpable mental states. These four states are: purposefully, knowingly, recklessly, and negligently. Let’s explore their relationship with intent.


The mental state of acting “purposefully” is akin to specific intent. When someone acts purposefully, they have a conscious objective or desire to accomplish a particular result. The person is aware of their actions and intends for those actions to achieve a specific outcome. For instance, if a person sets fire to a house intending to destroy it, they’re acting purposefully.


Acting “knowingly” does not require a person to want a particular outcome, but it does mean they are aware their conduct is of a nature that will likely cause a particular result. This mental state is similar to general intent. For instance, if a person knowingly drives too fast in a school zone, they may not intend to hit anyone, but they are aware that their speeding might lead to that outcome.


The mental state of acting “recklessly” occurs when a person is aware of and disregards a substantial and unjustifiable risk associated with their actions. They might not intend a specific outcome, but they understand their behavior could lead to harmful results. For instance, if someone fires a gun into the air in a populated area, they might not intend to hit anyone, but they are recklessly disregarding the substantial risk that the falling bullet could injure someone.


The mental state of acting “negligently” arises when a person should be aware of a substantial and unjustifiable risk but isn’t. They fail to perceive the risk associated with their actions, a failure that constitutes a significant deviation from the standard of care a reasonable person would observe in the same situation.

The concept of intent intertwines with the MPC’s four culpable mental states. They help ascertain an individual’s mental state during a crime, shaping how we understand their intent and, consequently, their degree of culpability. It’s important to note that the exact definitions and usage of these terms can vary across jurisdictions, depending on local laws and regulations.

In summary, intent is a key concept in criminal law that refers to a person’s mental state when they commit a crime. Specific intent involves planning to achieve a certain outcome, while the general type involves acting without a specific goal in mind. Understanding intent helps us figure out who is more blameworthy for a crime, guiding us toward fairer punishment. Whether we’re talking about throwing rocks or more serious crimes, intent is our guide in the complex world of criminal law.

[ Glossary ]

Last Modified: 05/26/2023

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