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What’s a Crime?

October 28, 2011

1. History, 2. Law

What’s a Crime?

Broad question.  First of all, a crime is an act (generally) that society has determined to be worthy of public condemnation.  The act violates the norms of living in a cooperative society.  The act sucks so badly that we don’t consider the aggrieved person (e.g., the dead guy) to be the victim – instead, society is considered to be the victim.

More specifically, a crime is looked upon in four stages – actus reus, mens rea, causation, and harm.  When a defendant sits at a Preliminary Hearing (Pennsylvania’s system), the District Attorney is establishing these four elements.  Together, that shows a prima facie case – a criminal case on the face of the alleged facts.

Actus Reus is Latin for evil act – the bad act.  A person got shot.  Generally speaking, that’s not as designed.  It ain’t good.  Was a person shot?  It can’t be presumed that a person ate lead – it has to be shown through facts.  But, hey, if some guy is dead, the autopsy shows cause of death, etc., we can pretty much blow through this issue.  Ah, not so quickly!  Was a person’s home burgled?  Was the car actually stolen?  We’ll get into more specific issues over time, but for now realize that Actus Reus can have holes punched in it.  Just because some POS says he got smacked upside the head doesn’t mean it happened.

Mens Rea is Latin for evil mind.  Once we establish actus reus, we move here.  Simply put, if someone got shot but it was an accident, then there’s no evil intent – no mens rea – so there is no crime.  Mens Rea comes in flavors from negligence to specific intent, with two more in between.  Someone who shots and kills another negligently is going to get tagged with Manslaughter; if they did it intentionally, then Murder.  Some crimes, like Burglary, are only specific intent crimes.  You can’t negligently burgle – that’s why some clown getting drunk and sleeping in his neighbor’s house makes for a good story but usually ends up as a Trespass charge.

The third layer is Causation.  Did the suspect actually cause the outcome?  If someone points a loaded gun at another, says, “Brace yourself,” then pulls the trigger, we don’t have much of an issue.  But it can be more complicated.  True story – two yahoos get wasted.  One owns a boat.  It’s the middle of the night.  Yahoo No. 1 suggests that they go high-speed boating in his boat.  Screaming around the waterways has the predictable result.  Now the boat is upside down with the yahoos clinging to it.  The passenger decides to swim to shore.  Before he leaves the boat, the clown that owned the boat tells him not to do it.  He does anyway and drowns on the swim back.  Did Yahoo No. 1 cause the death?  Yes.  He created the circumstances under which it occurred.  Bummer.

The Harm element is easy.  A homicide needs someone to be dead (OK, used to need a body but now we get away without one by using blood, hair, DNA, and fiber evidence, for example).  A home needs to be entered for Burglary, etc.  This element can fail, but the playground is generally in the other three.

That’s an overview of what constitutes a crime.  I’ll write more about the specific elements at another time.

PS – I wrote in the opening that a crime requires an “act (generally).”  Just to clarify, sometimes we have an affirmative duty to act in a specific situation – like stopping at the scene of a fresh auto accident – and the failure to act can be used to establish actus reus.

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About Clyde

Clyde is the lead attorney in the firm. Licensed to practice in 1993, he's also taught Constitutional and Criminal Law for several years at a private university, primarily at the Master's level.

View all posts by Clyde


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