purposely | Definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee


Course: Introduction / Criminal Law

Purposely is a culpable mental state requiring that the actor have the criminal act as his or her “conscious object;” the criminal harm was done on purpose.

In criminal law, a defendant’s mental state, or mens rea, plays an important role in determining criminal liability. Purposely is a specific mens rea that requires the defendant to have intended to cause a particular harm or result. This means that the actor’s conscious object was to commit the criminal act.

Purposely is one of the highest mens rea standards in criminal law. It is often required for crimes such as murder or first-degree murder, where the prosecution must prove that the defendant intended to cause the victim’s death. For example, if a defendant deliberately shoots and kills someone, they have acted purposely.

The Model Penal Code (MPC) defines purposely as “when it is his conscious object to engage in conduct of that nature or to cause such a result.” This means that the actor must have specifically intended to commit the criminal act and must have had a conscious desire to do so.

An example of purposely could be a person who intentionally sets a fire to a building in order to collect insurance money. The defendant would have had a conscious desire to cause the fire and to collect the insurance money, which makes the mental state of purposely applicable in this scenario.

Purposely can be distinguished from other mens rea standards such as recklessly or negligently. Recklessly involves a conscious disregard of a substantial and unjustifiable risk, while negligence is a failure to exercise reasonable care or awareness. For example, if a driver knows that their car has faulty brakes but still decides to drive recklessly, they would have acted recklessly. If the driver was unaware of the faulty brakes, they would have acted negligently.

Overall, the mens rea of purposely requires a higher level of intent and consciousness than other mens rea standards. It is an important factor in determining criminal liability, especially in cases where the prosecution must prove that the defendant had a specific intent to cause harm.

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Last Modified:  04/09/2023


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