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What are the Levels of Criminal Intent in Federal Cases?

Posted by Dmitry Gorin | Mar 04, 2024

For most federal crimes, one of the critical elements prosecutors must establish to obtain a conviction is criminal intent, also known as mens rea

Levels of Criminal Intent in Federal Cases
A crucial element that must be proven for a conviction is criminal intent, known as mens rea.

Essentially, it refers to the defendant's mental state during the alleged crime and separates an accident from a deliberate act. Since most criminal acts involve intention, prosecutors often cannot convict you if they cannot demonstrate your intent.

Simply put, establishing the requisite mens rea, or “criminal state of mind,” is a critical component of the government's burden of proof when prosecuting a federal criminal case

The government must prove the defendant's state of mind when the alleged crime was committed. This principle is true except for a few cases where a federal law establishes strict liability for criminal conduct. 

Notably, the federal criminal justice system has varying levels of criminal intent. Depending on the federal statute, the outcome might depend on whether the government can prove a defendant acted:

•    Knowingly, 
•    Willfully,
•    With general intent or 
•    With specific intent.

The threshold of criminal intent is different for different crimes. Specifically, prosecutors must prove one of four different levels of intent regarding various federal statutes, depending on how the law reads. Let's take a closer look at these four levels.

What is “Acting Knowingly?”

The level of intent known as "knowingly" refers to situations where an individual is aware of their actions and the circumstances surrounding those actions. 

This does not necessarily mean that the individual intended the result of their actions, or even that they knew what they were doing was illegal, but simply that they intended to do the act in question and that it was not accidental

Proving the defendant acted knowingly involves demonstrating that they were conscious of their actions or the items they possessed without necessarily proving they were aware they were committing a crime.

Simply put, it is enough for the government to prove that the defendant acted “knowingly” under many federal criminal statutes. Generally, this means that the defendant knew what they were doing but not necessarily that they knew that the conduct in question was illegal.

EXAMPLE: Securities fraud 18 U.S.C. 1348. This crime involves deceptive practices in the stock and commodities markets, such as insider trading or spreading false information to manipulate stock prices. 

According to federal law, for a person to be convicted of securities fraud, the prosecution must demonstrate that the defendant knowingly attempted to deceive or defraud. In other words, they were aware that the information they were using or disseminating was false or misleading. 

This "knowingly" requirement ensures that only those who intentionally engage in fraudulent activity are held accountable, rather than those who may have unknowingly disseminated false information without intent to harm others.

What is “Acting Willfully?”

The next level of intent is "willfully," which is a higher standard than acting knowingly. The term “willfully” appears in numerous federal criminal laws, such as the statute prohibiting lying to federal agents defined under 18 U.S.C. 1001 false statements

An act is done ‘willfully' if done voluntarily and intentionally and with the specific intent to do something the law forbids. To act willfully means that an individual did not simply do the act on purpose but that they also knew they were breaking the law and did so anyway. 

They intentionally committed the crime with bad intentions or evil purposes instead of simply not knowing or understanding the law. 

In other words, they acted with intent to break the law. In case law, the courts have further interpreted "acting willfully" to state that the prosecutors don't necessarily have to prove "evil intent" to obtain a conviction. In other words, they don't have to show the defendant intended to cause harm, only that they intended to break the law.

The United States Department of Justice (DOJ) says, “The term ‘willfully' means no more than that the forbidden act was done deliberately and with knowledge and does not require proof of evil intent.”

EXAMPLE: Tax evasion 26 U.S.C. 7201. This crime involves intentionally avoiding paying taxes owed to the government, often through deceptive or illegal means. To prove tax evasion, prosecutors must demonstrate that the defendant willfully attempted to evade or defeat taxes they knew they were required to pay.

What is “Acting with General Intent?”

One of the most common levels of intent applied in federal criminal statutes is “general intent.” In federal law, general intent refers to a person intending to perform a specific action but not necessarily seeking a particular outcome. 

In contrast to specific intent, general intent does not require the prosecutor to prove that the defendant intended the exact outcome of their actions. 

It suffices to show that the defendant intended to perform the acts that led to the criminal result. This level of intent is often used in cases involving reckless or negligent behavior. 

EXAMPLE: Bank robbery 18 U.S.C. 2113. This crime involves unlawfully taking money or property from a bank through force, violence, intimidation, or threat. Prosecutors do not need to prove that the defendant intended for harm to occur during the robbery, only that they had the general intent to commit the act of robbing the bank.

What is “Acting with Specific Intent?”

The mens rea of specific intent involves committing a criminal act with the purpose of producing a desired result. In most cases, specific intent does not mean the intent to violate a particular statute.

Specific intent is a more nuanced level of criminal intent, requiring the prosecutor to prove that the defendant had a particular purpose or objective in mind when committing the act. 

This intent goes beyond mere knowledge of the action and its circumstances, including a desire to achieve a specific result. It requires that the accused person intended both their actions and the particular result of those actions—but not necessarily the intent to commit a crime or to violate a specific law. 

EXAMPLE: Conspiracy to commit fraud 18 U.S.C. 371. This crime involves two or more individuals agreeing to engage in fraudulent activity. 

To prove conspiracy to commit fraud, prosecutors must demonstrate a specific intent among the conspirators to defraud others through deceitful or dishonest means and that they took at least one action toward that goal.

Many federal statutes do not explicitly identify the level of intent required for criminal culpability. When facing federal charges, understanding the level of intent that the government is required to prove can be crucial to the defense of your case. Contact our federal criminal defense attorneys for more information. Eisner Gorin LLP is based in Los Angeles, California.

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About the Author

Dmitry Gorin

Dmitry Gorin is a licensed attorney, who has been involved in criminal trial work and pretrial litigation since 1994. Before becoming partner in Eisner Gorin LLP, Mr. Gorin was a Senior Deputy District Attorney in Los Angeles Courts for more than ten years. As a criminal tri...

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