Principles of Criminal Liability

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Principles of Criminal Liability
"Law, with all its weaknesses, is all that stands between civilization
and barbarism" (John Derbyshire)

Criminal Liability is what unlocks the logical structure of the
Criminal Law. Each element of a crime that the prosecutor needs to
prove (beyond a reasonable doubt) is a principle of criminal
liability. There are some crimes that only involve a subset of all the
principles of liability, and these are called "crimes of criminal
conduct". Burglary, for example, is such a crime because all you need
to prove beyond a reasonable doubt is an actus reusconcurring with a
mens rea. On the other hand, there are crimes that involve all the
principles of liability, and these are called "true crimes". Homicide,
for example, is such a crime because you need to prove actus reus,
mens rea, concurrence, causation, and harm. The requirement that the
prosecutor must prove each element of criminal liability beyond a
reasonable doubt is called the "corpus delicti rule".

Liability needs to be distinguished from the following concepts:

* culpability (purposely, knowingly, recklessly, negligently) -
infers intent

* capacity (infancy, intoxication, insanity) - capacity defenses

* responsibility (volition, free will, competency) - presumptions

There are five principles of liability in Criminal Law:

* Principle of Actus Reus

* Principle of Mens Rea

* Principle of Concurrence

* Principle of Causation

* Principle of Resulting Harm


· involuntariness -- sleepwalking, hypnotic behavior, etc. are seen as
examples of acting upon forces beyond individual control, and are
therefore not normally included in the principle of actus reus.

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MLA Citation:
"Principles of Criminal Liability." 23 Mar 2017

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However, certain "voluntarily induced involuntary acts" such as drowsy
driving might arguably be included if the prior voluntary act created
the risk of a future involuntary act.

· manifest criminality -- caught red-handed, clear-cut case of actus
reusproven beyond a reasonable doubt

· possession -- the law recognizes various degrees of this. Actual
possession means physically on your person. Constructive possession
means physically under your control. Knowing possession means you know
what you are possessing. Mere possession means you don't know what you
are possessing. Unwitting possession is when something has been
planted on you. The only punishable types of possession are the ones
that are conscious and knowable.

· procuring -- obtaining things with the intent of using them for
criminal purposes; e.g., precursor chemicals for making narcotics,
"pimping" for a prostitute, and procuring another to commit a crime
("accessory before the fact")

· status or condition -- sometimes a chronic condition qualifies as
action, e.g., drug addiction, alcoholism, on the assumption that first
use is voluntary. Sometimes the condition, e.g. chronic alcoholism, is
treated as a disease which exculpates an individual. Most often, it's
the punishment aspect of criminal law in these kinds of cases that
triggers an 8th Amendment issue. Equal Protection and other
constitutional issues may be triggered.

· thoughts -- sometimes, not often, the expression of angry thoughts,
e.g., "I'll kill you for that" is taken as expressing the resolution
and will to commit a crime, but in general, thoughts are not part of
the principle of actus reus. Daydreaming and fantasy are also not
easily included in the principle of mens rea.

· words -- these are considered "verbal acts"; e.g. sexual harassment,
solicitation, terroristic threats, assault, inciting to riot.


· circumstantial -- determination of mens rea through indirect

· confessions -- clear-cut direct evidence of mens rea beyond a
reasonable doubt

· constructive intent -- one has the constructive intent to kill if
they are driving at high speeds on an icy road with lots of
pedestrians around, e.g.

· general intent -- the intent to commit the actus reusof the crime
one is charged with; e.g., rape and intent to penetrate

· specific intent -- the intent to do something beyond the actus reusof
the crime one is charged with; e.g., breaking and entering with intent
to burglarize

· strict liability -- crimes requiring no mens rea; liability without
fault; corporate crime, environmental crime

· transferred intent -- the intent to harm one victim but instead harm


· attendant circumstances -- some crimes have additional elements that
must accompany the criminal act and the criminal mind; e.g., rape, but
not with your wife

· enterprise liability -- in corporate law, this is the idea that both
the act and the agency (mens rea) for it can be imputed to the
corporation; e.g., product safety

· year-and-a-day rule -- common law rule that the final result of an
act must occur no later than a year and a day after the criminal state
of mind. For example, if you struck someone on the head with intent to
kill, but they didn't die until a year and two days later, you could
not be prosecuted for murder. Many states have abolished this rule or
extended the time limit. In California, it's three years.

· vicarious liability -- sometimes, under some rules, the guilty party
would not be the person who committed the act but the person who
intended the act; e.g., supervisors of employees


· actual cause -- a necessary but not sufficient condition to prove
causation beyond a reasonable doubt; prosecutor must also prove
proximate cause

· but for or sine qua non causation -- setting in motion a chain of
events that sooner or later lead to the harmful result; but for the
actor's conduct, the result would not have occurred

· intervening cause -- unforeseen events that still hold the defendant

· legal causation -- a prosecutor's logic of both actual and proximate

· proximate cause -- the fairness of how far back the prosecutor goes
in the chain of events to hold a particular defendant accountable;
literally means the next or closest cause

· superceding cause -- unforeseen events that exculpate a defendant


These are issues involving the law of accessories and attempts (later


Presumptions are court-ordered assumptions that the jury must take as
true unless rebutted by evidence. Their purpose is to simplify and
expedite the trial process. The judge, for example at some point in
testimony, may remind the jury that it is OK to assume that allpeople
form somekind of intent before or during their behavior. It is wrong,
however, for the judge to order the jury to assumeintent or a specific
kind of intent in a case. Presumptions are not a substitute for
evidence. Presumptions are supposed to be friendly reminders about
safe, scientific assumptions about human nature or human behavior in
general. The most common presumptions are:

· reminders that the accused is considered innocent until proven

· reminders that the accused is to be considered sane, normal, and

It is important to understand that presumptions are not inferences.
Presumptions mustbe accepted as true by the jury. Inferences maybe
accepted as true by the jury, but the trick is to get the jury to
believe they thought of it first. Lawyers are not allowed to engage in
the practice of "stacking of inferences", or basing an inference
solely upon another inference. Lawyers are also prohibited by logic
from making certain "impermissible inferences" and here's an example
of how the logic goes:

Evidence admitted:

Inferences that can be drawn:

Witnesses testify that X repeatedly hit Y on the head with a club
until stopped by passerbys

Intent to kill or seriously injure; Purposely or Knowingly using club
as deadly weapon.

Witnesses testify that X repeatedly hit Y on the head with a rolled-up

Intent to kill cannot be inferred; newspaper cannot be construed as a
deadly weapon

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