Specific and General Intent Crimes

Specific and General Intent Crimes in California

Many crimes in the California Penal Code require the prosecution to prove that the defendant acted intentionally. This is because criminal charges are very serious and we usually prefer that people not be convicted of crimes and possibly sent to prison by acting accidentally. However, there are different kinds of “intent” under California law: specific intent and general intent. 

What is Specific Intent?

A person “specifically intends” something when they actually intend to cause that result. For example, if person A walks over to person B, then decides “I am going to punch person B in the face”, then winds up their right arm and tries to punch person B in the face, we can say that person A acted with “specific intent”, because he actually tried to punch person B in the face. We could also say that person A “specifically intended” to harm person B, even if person B ducks and gets struck somewhere else on their body, or does not get hit at all. Also, “specific intent” does not require any proof that the defendant planned their actions over an extended period of time; a person can form a specific intent within seconds. What matters is that person A actually decided to achieve a certain result-harm person B-and that is why we would say that person A acted with “specific intent.”

What is General Intent?

A person acts with general intent when they intend to act a certain way, but might not necessarily care about the result of their actions. If a defendant were to walk through a crowd waving a heavy metal chain in the air as people passed by, we could say that the defendant “generally intended” to harm others even if they did not care one way or the other who, if anyone, was struck. In this way, California criminal law does recognize that some people act “intentionally” without necessarily hoping for, planning for, or intending a specific result. In general intent crimes, all that matters is that the defendant intentionally did whatever action led to the criminal result. 

How do I know if I am charged with a specific intent crime or a general intent crime?

Usually the California Penal Code will say whether a crime requires proof of the defendant’s specific intent. However, the law is always changing and the California courts often add more explanation to how the statutes of the Penal Code work, and how the prosecution is expected to prove them. You should always discuss this issue with your attorney when charged with a crime, along with any other questions that you might have on what the prosecution has to do in order to prove its case against you.

How does the prosecution prove specific intent, general intent, or any intent at all?

A common misconception is that the prosecution can never prove what any of us ever “intended” to do, because none of us can read minds. However, the court (or more specifically, the jury in a jury trial), is allowed to consider circumstantial evidence of the defendant’s state of mind. Some examples would be testimony about the defendant’s body language, physical actions, statements, or even whatever relationship may have existed between the defendant(s) and the alleged victim(s). Another common misconception is that the prosecution has to show “motive” or “planning” or extensive “pre-meditation” in order to prove intent, but this is usually not the case, either. While evidence of these things can often be used to show whether the defendant acted intentionally (specific or general), they are not necessarily required. As mentioned above, a person can form an intention within seconds, even a specific intention. A successful defense focused on the issue of “intent” will comb through the prosecution evidence carefully and explore possible defense evidence as well to show why the circumstances of a given case do not show that the defendant acted with whatever type of intent the charged crime(s) require(s).