The Elements of a Crime: A Quick Recall

The Elements of a Crime: A Quick Recall

The elements of a crime constitute of a series of components which must be present in order to demonstrate that someone is guilty of a crime. The prosecution must provide supporting evidence to demonstrate that all of the elements of a crime are present in a given case and the defense can challenge the validity of a case on one or more elements. Consequently, the prosecution is generally required to prove the following elements of a criminal offence:

Actus Reus (prohibited/guilty act): Act(s) or omission(s) that comprise of the physical elements of a crime as required by statute. In other words, the actus reus in criminal law consists of all elements of a crime other than the state of mind of the defendant.

Mens Rea (guilty mind): The guilty state of mind at the time of the act.

Concurrence of Mens Rea and Actus Reus: The physical act and the mental state operating at the same time.

Every crime must consist of the voluntary physical bodily movement and the mental thoughts that caused that particular movement. Bad thoughts alone cannot constitute a crime, with some exceptions like perjury.

Construction of criminal liability:

Different types of offences have been designated as conduct crimes and result crimes. In conduct crimes, the law is interested only in the conduct of the actor. In contrast, in result crimes the law is only interested in the result of the crimes.

Result crimes:

Criminal liability is imposed upon a blameworthy actor whose conduct has caused a forbidden harm. In other words, crimes which do require the production of a consequence are known as result crimes.

Examples: murder and theft.

Conduct crimes:

Conduct crimes constitute the conduct which caused the forbidden harm.

Examples: attempt to all offences, conspiracy or incitement.

For example, if A hurls a stone at B, that stone strikes B’s head. The hurling of a stone is a conduct and as a consequence the injury caused by the hurled stone is the result of said conduct. Therefore, actus reus is generally made up of conduct and sometimes the consequences and also circumstances (state of affairs) in which the conduct takes place.

 The elements of Actus Reus:

  • Consequences
  • Circumstances
  • Conduct

Consequences:

Some crimes result in prohibited consequences. For instance, D is sitting on a roof of building A, and he has pointed a sniper gun at person X, who is living in the front building B. D has the intention to kill person X and he shoots. Due to this, person X dies. This is a consequence of a conduct crime (setting and pointing of gun). The result is death. If by any cause, the shot misses person X and he does not die, then D is not liable. It can be counted as an attempt to murder instead.

Circumstances:

Circumstances of the crime are also penalized in the determination of an actus reus. For example, if person A has stolen goods in his possession, it is necessary to prove that those possessions are stolen. Moreover, unlawful sexual intercourse with a girl aging under 16 years is a crime. The actus reus would be incomplete if that girl is not under the age of 16. Nevertheless, examples of lurking and trespass lurking also include the ingredients of circumstances.

Conduct:

Conduct consists of act(s) or omission(s) which may result in some consequence in any circumstance. A conduct is divided into two types.

 Act:

An act in an actus reus is commonly defined as a criminal act that was the result of voluntary bodily movement. This describes a physical activity that harms another person or damages property. Anything from a physical assault or murder to the destruction of public property would qualify as an actus reus.

Omission:

Omission, as an act of criminal negligence, is another form of actus reus. It lies on the opposite side of the spectrum from assault or murder and involves, not taking an action that would have prevented injury to another person. An omission could be failing to warn others that you have created a dangerous situation, not feeding an infant who has been left in your care, or not completing a work related task properly which resulted in an accident. In all of these cases, the perpetrator’s failure to complete a necessary activity caused harm to others.

“State of affairs” as an actus reus:

A crime may also be committed although there is no act. It is not necessary for the crime that there should always be “willed muscular movement”. These type of offences are also known as ‘situation offences’ or ‘status offences.’ A drunk or intoxicated person who is in charge of a motor vehicle is willing to drive, commits a crime. Gang of thieves and gang of dacoits can also be considered as examples of status offences under Section 400 and 401 of the Pakistan Penal Code.

Rules for the Actus Reus:

  • The actus reus must be proved;
  • The act must be voluntary (conscious exercise of the will);
  • Involuntariness – defendant is not criminally liable for events over which he has no control (failure of brakes during driving, although person has full control over his body movements).
  • Automatism – when a person has no control over his body movements he or she is known as automaton. Automatism may be due to insanity or other reasons. Self-induced automatism is not a self-defence (consumption of liquor and other intoxicants);
  • The act should be causative – if person A drinks a sip from a glass of juice in which person B has added potassium cyanide, but person A dies due to a heart attack while drinking juice and not from that cyanide poison. Then person B is not liable for murder, but may be arrested under attempt to murder.

Mens Rea: 

Until the twelfth century a person might have been held liable for much harm, simply because his or her conduct caused it, without proof of any blameworthy state of mind. With the passage of time, the concept of a guilty mind and the mental element was also considered. In the developed common law of crime, such mental element is always necessary, and is known as mens rea.

Mens rea is a technical term. It is often loosely translated as “a guilty mind”, but this translation is misleading. A person may have mens rea, as it is generally understood today, without any feeling of guilt on his or her part. He or she may, indeed, be acting with a perfectly clear conscience, believing his or her act to be morally, and even legally correct, and yet, be held to have mens rea. In order to properly appreciate the meaning of mens rea it is necessary to distinguish between different possible mental attitudes which a person may have with respect to the actus reus of the crime in question. These are:

  • Intention
  • Recklessness
  • Negligence

Intention:

Whenever a person is doing a prohibited act or omission, he or she must know the purpose of his or her action and that he or she wants to achieve that purpose via that action.

Example: If A sets fire to B’s house, and A is sure that B is present in his house and this fire was set to kill B, then this would constitute intention.

Recklessness:

In recklessness, there is less involvement of the mind. In cases of recklessness, whenever a person commits an act or omission, he or she knows that there is a risk (and no certainty) involved that some damage “may” occur. In recklessness, there is a probability of crime.

Example: If A is in doubt that B is in his house or not, and he sets a fire. As a consequence, B dies. This death is due to recklessness.

Negligence:

Recklessness is the conscious taking of an unjustified risk, while negligence is the inadvertent taking of an unjustified risk.

Example: If person A does not know that person B is in his house, but he ought to have been aware of his presence and he sets fire to house, and as a consequence person B dies, then this is negligence. Moreover, if a person does not check the brake oil of his vehicle and suddenly has an accident, killing four men on the road. He ought to check the brake oil, but he did not and so this too is negligence.

Concurrence of Mens Rea with the Actus Reus:

The mens rea must coincide in point of time with the act which causes the actus reus. Mens rea implies an intention to do a present act, not a future act.

Example: Suppose person A moves out of his house with a mens rea (intention) to kill person B, who lives 20 km away from person A’s house. On his way to person B’s house, person A ends up driving his car over a person. Person A steps out of his car and sees that the person was person B. Now for this case, person A is not liable for his murder because there is no concurrence of mens rea and actus reus.

If the situation is changed to when person A steps out of his vehicle he sees that person B is injured and becomes happy that he found his target in his way and person A steps back in his vehicle and moves his car back and forth over the body of person B, then person A is liable for the murder of person B because there is concurrence of mens rea and actus reus.

Example: If person A cuts the leg of person B, and disposes him and moves out to a place where the chances of his death due to bleeding are more and so, death is inevitable. Although there is difference in the mens rea and accomplishment of actus reus, person A is liable for the murder of person B because actus reus is a continuing act here.

From the above examples we can infer two rules:

Rules for the concurrence of Mens rea and Actus reus:

  • The mens rea must coincide in point of time with the act which causes the actus reus.
  • Where the actus reus is a continuing act, it is sufficient that the defendant has mens rea during its continuance though not at the moment that the actus reus is accomplished.

Motive usually does not affect liability:

Motive usually refers to feelings. It can be noble or evil. In the determination of crime, motive or feelings are never considered. If a defendant causes an actus reus with mens rea, he or she is guilty of the crime and it is entirely irrelevant to his or her guilt that he or she had a good motive. On the other hand, if either the actus reus or the mens rea of any crime is lacking, then no motive, however evil, will make a person guilty of a crime.

 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of CourtingTheLaw.com or any other organization with which he might be associated.

Zulqarnain Ali Raja

The writer holds a B.A. LLB (hons) degree and is a Shariah & Law Scholar at the International Islamic University Islamabad. He is also the Chairperson of the Law Students Council, Pakistan.



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