What MAKES A Crime… A Crime?

I’m Dennis Boren, a criminal defense attorney and former felony prosecutor. Today, I want to talk to you about what makes a crime a crime. In other words, what actions can a person take that actually constitute a criminal offence?

First of all, let me ask you a question. Can you accidentally commit a crime? Yes, you can. Think about speeding. The prosecution does not have to prove that you meant to speed, it just has to prove that you did speed. That’s called a strict liability standard.


Now, for the most part, for every other crime, it takes intent. You can’t accidentally steal something. I had a client once that went into the store. I think we’ve all done this. He didn’t think he’d be getting many things. He didn’t take a basket. But he ended up getting more things than he thought he would. He put a pack of Rolaids or Life Savers in his shirt pocket, and then forgot to pay for it. Well, is that theft? It’s really not because he didn’t intend to do it.


So, let’s use homicide as an example to go through this. There are three different kinds of ways people can be criminally responsible for causing the death of another person.


One is, of course, murder. And for murder, the state has to prove that somebody acted either intentionally or knowingly. Intentionally means just what it says. Someone meant to do it and they did. And knowingly means they should have known what they were doing. It’s unreasonable for them to think otherwise, so they acted with knowing intent.


The next lower standard would involve manslaughter, which sounds worse than murder, frankly, but with manslaughter, the state has to prove that a person acted recklessly. That just means they consciously disregarded the dangerousness of their action.


And thirdly, there is the criminally negligent homicide, which is actually a misdemeanor. That means that somebody acted even though they should have known, they ought to have known that their actions were dangerous.


Let me kind of step through that with an example. If somebody went to a sporting event, and walked up to another individual, pulled out a gun and shot him, they would have probably acted intentionally in that case.

Now, let’s change it a little bit, and put that person out on the field of play. He points the gun into the crowd and shoots it, and it kills a person. Now, he wasn’t trying to kill that particular person, but he was acting recklessly.

Then again, let’s just say he was out on the field to play or wherever in the stadium and had a gun in a holster, and maybe he even had the license to carry it. He was trying to pull it out, it got stuck, he was wrestling around with it, and he accidentally discharged it and someone was killed.

That would be criminally negligent homicide, because he should have known that his action could have an effect, in this case, that it could cause the death of somebody.


I hope this was helpful and you’ll never be in this situation. This is something you need to know though. If you ever have any questions about this or anything related, feel free to reach out to me, and I’ll be happy to answer you.

And as I like to remind everyone, if you’re involved with an officer in any kind of interaction, pull out your smartphone, and turn on the video app and record it. That’ll protect you.

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