What is Specific Intent?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Specific intent, in the law, is a state of mind which someone must be in to meet the standard for certain types of convictions. In such cases, the person intends to engage in a specific action and is aware of the consequences. Crimes which require proof of specific intent include things like robbery and larceny. There are a number of defenses which may be used in an attempt to argue that this standard has not been satisfied, and thus that the defendant is not guilty of the crime as charged.

Crimes, like stealing a car, require evidence of specific intent.
Crimes, like stealing a car, require evidence of specific intent.

For specific intent to be proved, it must be shown that someone intended to do something, like depriving someone else of property, with a full awareness of the consequences. Just having intent is not enough for a conviction, however; the accused must also have committed actions which would reasonably have led to accomplishment of the intended goal. Thus, a person who wants to steal a neighbor's car is not guilty if someone else steals it.

Crimes which require proof of specific intent include things like robbery.
Crimes which require proof of specific intent include things like robbery.

A common example of a specific intent law is burglary. If someone intends to take property belonging to someone else and breaks into a house to do it, he or she can be charged with burglary. If, on the other hand, someone breaks into a house to sleep, this person is only charged with breaking and entering, because there is no specific intent to take property. Likewise, with theft, it must be shown that the accused took property with the intention of keeping or selling it, thereby depriving the rightful owner. Conversely, if someone accidentally picks up someone else's coat at a coat check and later returns it, this is not theft, because the person did not have an intent to keep the coat.

There are different charges for breaking and entering based on the specific intent of the burglar.
There are different charges for breaking and entering based on the specific intent of the burglar.

This is differentiated from general intent, which is a plan to engage in unlawful activity. If specific intent cannot be proved in a given case, it is still possible to prove that the person committed a crime and should be penalized. For instance, someone who takes the neighbors car without consent to go to the store can be charged with joyriding; the person did not intend to keep the car, so it is not theft, but the car was still used without permission.

Someone who shoplifts from a store might do so with specific intent.
Someone who shoplifts from a store might do so with specific intent.

In cases where someone is accused of a specific intent crime, the prosecution must be able to demonstrate both that the person committed the action in question, and that specific intent was involved. One defense to such crimes is intoxication, in which someone argues that she or he did not have the capacity for intent in a given situation.

Intoxication may be used to argue against specific intent.
Intoxication may be used to argue against specific intent.
Anyone accused of automobile theft who threatened or harmed the vehicle's owner or passengers will nearly always face felony charges.
Anyone accused of automobile theft who threatened or harmed the vehicle's owner or passengers will nearly always face felony charges.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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