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Causation: Legal Definitions & Examples

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  • 0:00 The Criminal Act
  • 0:30 Statutory Elements of a Crime
  • 1:02 The Four Basic…
  • 2:24 Criminal Causation
  • 4:08 Intervening Causation Defense
  • 5:15 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kenneth Poortvliet
When a criminal act is committed, the law requires certain basic elements to be proven before a person can be found guilty. In this lesson, we will define the element of criminal causation and provide examples of how it applies to a criminal case.

The Criminal Act

Charlie got mad at Denise and pushed her, and she turned in panic and ran into the street. She was hit by a passing car and died, and the driver smashed into a pole. On the operating table, a doctor accidentally cut the driver's artery, and the driver died as well. Charlie was charged with two counts of homicide. Does this seem right to you? To get a better understanding of this question, let's look over the statutory elements of a crime.

Statutory Elements of a Crime

Every crime has required elements, which must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt to be considered a crime. ''Statutory elements '' are found in the written law. For example, let's say Fingers Freddy picks up a cell phone off of a cafe table. Angry Agnes screams, and Fingers Freddy is charged with larceny, which has the following statutory elements:

  1. The taking of another's property
  2. Without the consent of the owner
  3. With the intent to deprive the owner of the property

No crime exists without all three.

The Four Basic Elements of Crime

For every crime, are four unwritten basic elements that need to be proven, just like their written counterparts. These elements are:

1. Actus reus, or the guilty act.

This is a criminal act that constitutes the conduct prohibited by the statute. For larceny in this case, the actus reus would be picking up Angry Agnes' phone. Just picking up the object is not enough, but without it, there could be no crime.

2. Mens rea, or the guilty mind.

The person must possess the intent to do something wrong. If Fingers Freddy just picked up the phone to look at it while also planning to give it back, then no crime existed.

3. Concurrence

This means that actus reus and mens rea must exist simultaneously. Consider if Freddy had picked up the phone and put it back, and then after leaving the store decided that he was going to take it. At this point, Freddy picked up the phone, which was actus reus, and wanted to deprive Angry Agnes of her phone, which was mens rea, but since they didn't happen at the same time, there is no crime.

4. Causation

The concurrence of the actus reus and mens rea must have been the factual and legal cause of the harm at the heart of the crime. Let's say Agnes' phone had been stolen. Fingers Freddy, intending to steal it, took a phone from her table, but if it turned out not to be hers, then he didn't cause her the loss of her phone.

Criminal Causation

Causation has two parts: factual and legal. Factual causation means that the act and the harm are directly connected. To determine this, the but for test is applied. For example, Hitman Hal shoots Loose Lips Larry who dies. This is pretty simple: ''but for'' Hitman Hal shooting Loose Lips Larry, Larry wouldn't be dead.

However, it's not always that simple. Let's say Hitman Hal only wings Loose Lips Larry who stumbles onto the subway tracks and gets run over by an express train. Did Larry die from the flesh wound? No, it was the train that killed him. So is Hitman Hal free of a murder charge?

The law requires that legal causation exist as well. To determine this, the court applies the proximate cause test, which requires that the criminal act be ''proximate'' (close in relationship) to the prohibited harm. In this case, Loose Lips Larry falling onto the tracks and dying as a direct result of the shooting are very close in proximity. When you apply both causation tests, it seems clear that Hal is guilty.

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