motive | Definition

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

In the criminal justice context, motive refers to the reason or underlying cause behind a criminal act.

Understanding Motive

To understand criminal justice, one of the crucial concepts to grasp is motive. Motive explains why someone decided to commit a crime. It’s the drive or the reason that sparked the criminal behavior. For example, if someone stole food, the motive might be hunger.

Both prosecutors and defense attorneys pay close attention to it. It can shed light on the circumstances of the crime and provide insight into the suspect’s state of mind.

Motive is not Intent

It’s essential to distinguish this from intent. After all, they are not the same. Intent refers to the person’s decision to commit a criminal act. Meanwhile, motive explains why the person had that intent.

For example, if a person set fire to a building, their intent is clear – they intended to start a fire. However, their motive could vary. They may have done it for insurance money, to harm someone, or perhaps as an act of vandalism. This gives context to the intent.

The Role of Motive in Trials

In a trial, motive can play a crucial role. Prosecutors often try to establish a suspect’s motivation to make their case stronger. If they can show a compelling reason why the defendant might have committed the crime, it may help convince the jury of the defendant’s guilt.

On the other hand, defense attorneys may also use this concept to their advantage. If they can demonstrate that the defendant had no motive to commit the crime, it may create doubt in the jury’s mind about the defendant’s guilt.

However, it’s important to note that proving a motive is not necessary to convict someone of a crime. After all, the key question in a trial is whether the defendant committed the crime, not why. Nonetheless, understanding this can help in establishing a narrative that makes sense to the jury.

Motive and Sentencing

After a conviction, motive can also play a role in sentencing. For example, if a crime was committed due to desperation or a situation beyond the defendant’s control, the judge may consider this when deciding the punishment. However, if it was malicious, the judge may impose a harsher sentence.

On the other hand, if the defendant had a particularly harmful one, such as racial hatred, this could lead to a hate crime charge, which often carries a more severe penalty.


All in all, motive is a crucial concept in criminal justice. It provides insight into why crimes happen, helps to shape trials, and can impact sentencing. While not necessary to prove guilt, understanding it helps to create a complete picture of the crime. Whether you’re a lawyer, a juror, or a student learning about criminal justice, the concept is fundamental to understanding how our justice system works.

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Last Modified: 06/27/2023


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