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WHAT DOES INTENT MEAN?
38 Hofstra L. Rev. (pending) (2010)
  • David Crump
Abstract
Intent sounds as though it has a clear meaning. But it does not. Sometimes it is defined strictly, so as to require purpose: a conscious desire on the part of the actor to bring about the result. Sometimes it is a lesser standard, requiring knowledge that the result is likely to happen. Sometimes intent is defined in a way that corresponds, really, to recklessness or negligence, requiring only an awareness of some possibility of a harmful result. Some courts have even said that objective blameworthiness is sufficient to constitute intent, implying that no mental state at all is required. Some courts define intent in detailed ways, but not always with definitions that fit the situations in which they are used. And some courts do not define the term at all. Intent poses a special problem because it cannot be seen or touched. It has to be proved circumstantially. This is true of several kinds of mental states, but intent has so many meanings that it remains stubbornly ambiguous even when adequately proved. Furthermore, intent connotes a mental state that depends heavily on motivations that are difficult to prove, and therefore, it sometimes cannot be shown by available evidence even when it should be found. To compound the problem, intent is easily denied, sometimes with absolute conviction on the part of the actor, because the actor places a different meaning on the term than others would. Rebuttals of intent run in patterns, some of which are difficult to avoid even if intent is present. At the same time, if the factfinder uses a definition of intent that is too loose, the concept may ensnare actors who ought to be found blameless, or even those who are engaged in socially desirable activities. For these reasons, it is important for intent to be carefully defined. This issue appears frequently in criminal cases, and it also arises often in civil cases that involve intentional torts. It probably is appropriate for a jurisdiction to use differing definitions of intent in different situations. The strictness of the definition should depend upon such factors as the probable availability of proof, the seriousness of the harm caused by the behavior, the place of the crime or tort in the hierarchy of other crimes or torts, and the difficulty of separating blameworthy conduct from innocent or even desirable behavior. For the most severe criminal cases, for example, a definition of intent that requires purpose or conscious desire is appropriate. For lesser crimes or civil torts, it may be better to use a standard that imposes liability for behavior indifferent to harm that is known to be highly likely. In any event, sloppy definitions of intent, or approaches that leave this ambiguous standard undefined, ought to be avoided, and lawmakers should be careful to match the strictness of the definition to the circumstances of the crime or tort.
Keywords
  • intent,
  • knowledge,
  • mens rea
Disciplines
Publication Date
2010
Citation Information
David Crump. 2010. "WHAT DOES INTENT MEAN?" Hofstra L. Rev. (pending). Available at: http://works.bepress.com/david_crump/9