Actus Reus: Definition & Examples

Actus Reus: Definition & Examples
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  • 0:01 Defining Actus Reus
  • 0:49 Examples
  • 2:56 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Schubert

Jessica is a practicing attorney and has taught law and has a J.D. and LL.M.

Once you complete this lesson, you should have a thorough understanding of what constitutes actus reus. You will review the definition as well as explore several examples.

Defining Actus Reus

Have you ever watched Law and Order and taken note of the suspect getting taken into custody for committing a crime? Well, after that portion of the show, you'll probably recall that the legal issues will take center stage. Sometimes, there is a discussion about whether a crime was committed, and you may have heard the phrase 'actus reus' utilized by the main characters when discussing the case.

When a person commits a crime, there are physical acts that make up elements of the crime. These physical acts, or a failure to act, constitute the actus reus of the crime. In fact, the literal translation of 'actus reus' from the original Latin is 'guilty act.' In order for a person to be charged with a crime, the actus reus of the crime must have occurred. If there is no actus reus, then no crime was committed.


There are crimes where the actus reus of the crime is the actual crime itself. In other words, all that needs to be demonstrated is that the act occurred, regardless of the defendant having a 'mens rea,' or 'guilty mind.'

One example is where there is a Driving While Intoxicated (DWI) statute. Under most DWI statutes, someone with a blood alcohol level of .15% is deemed intoxicated. Thus, to be charged with the crime, the fact that the blood alcohol level attained was .15% is sufficient to satisfy the actus reus; no other consequences of the intoxication must be demonstrated, such as a car accident or harm to another person (though those are obviously crimes in and of themselves).

In contrast, there are crimes where the actus reus of the criminal statute requires that the act caused harm. For example, if a person commits the crime of kidnapping, the person first takes an individual and then detains the individual. This consequence of taking and detaining the individual - like physical injury or psychological trauma - is the additional part of the actus reus that must occur in order for the crime to be committed.

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