Proving criminal intent in criminal cases, P.1

Last time, we mentioned a bill currently under consideration by Florida lawmakers which would lower the mens rea, or criminal intent, requirement in public corruption cases. Intent is an important issue in criminal cases, and prosecutors would, of course, naturally favor changes that would lower the bar in terms of proving criminal intent.

As we pointed out in our last post, intent can be categorized different ways. In addition to what we mentioned last time, one can also distinguish between general and specific intent. General intent refers to the intent to engage in conduct, and proving it requires prosecutors to show that the defendant acted intentionally rather than accidentally, involuntarily or unknowingly. More at issue in criminal cases is specific intent, which refers to the intention to achieve a specific outcome. 

However one distinguishes and categorizes different types or levels of intent, proving a defendant’s intent, especially in the context of criminal offenses, is a challenging task. Whether a case involves an individual defendant or a corporation, an admission or other direct evidence is not always available to clearly demonstrate what the defendant was thinking at the time the alleged offense occurred. In many cases, prosecutors have to rely on circumstantial evidence to make their case, and providing enough evidence of criminal intent to overcome reasonable doubts is challenging.

Circumstantial evidence, rather than providing a “smoking gun,” involves more or less converging and convincing arguments for criminal intent. The types of circumstantial evidence that are pieced together to prove criminal intent depends on the specific circumstances of each case. In our next post, we’ll say a bit more about this issue, looking particularly at federal mail and wire fraud charges. 

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