Crime: Legal Characteristics & General Features

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  • 0:03 Legal Characteristics of Crime
  • 0:57 Actus Reus
  • 4:12 Concurrence
  • 4:31 Other Features of Crime
  • 5:03 Causation
  • 5:39 Harm
  • 5:50 Legality
  • 6:06 Punishment
  • 6:17 Attendant Circumstances
  • 6:52 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.

Learn about the legal characteristics of crime. Find out what constitutes the actus reus, mens rea, and concurrence of a crime. Examine other general features of crime.

Legal Characteristics of Crime

Imagine that you are dining with your significant other at a local café. Suddenly, as you are taking the first bite of your dessert, a man runs past and grabs your pocketbook. He runs off with your bag, but he trips and falls on the way out the door. Has a crime been committed? Let's examine the legal characteristics of a crime and find out.

In order for a crime to have occurred, it is necessary to show that an individual actually:

1) Performed the actual crime, which is known as the actus reus and

2) That the act was intentional and purposeful, which is known as the mens rea.

Let's take a closer look at the actus reus and mens rea to get a deeper understanding of exactly what each of these mean.

Actus Reus

The actus reus is the actual voluntary, deliberate act of a crime. So, let's say we have Bob, who is a known robber. Let's say Bob wants to rob Florence. In order for Bob to perform the actus reus of robbery, he must actually take Florence's money from her. Bob approaches Florence while she is walking to her car after work, grabs her purse, and runs away. As a result, Bob has committed the actus reus, which is the robbery of Florence.

Mens Rea

The mens rea is the intentional, deliberate, and purposeful portion of the act sometimes known as criminal intent. When translated from Latin, mens rea means 'guilty mind.' Imagine that Bob is back, and this time he wants to rob a store. He plans the robbery and purchases a gun to do so. Bob enters the store with the gun to do the robbery. This act alone demonstrates Bob's intent, or mens rea, to commit the robbery.

There are four different types of mens rea. These are:

  • Intentional
  • Knowing
  • Reckless
  • Negligent

The intentional mens rea means that the offender took purposeful action to achieve his goal. Bob's actions in the example we discussed earlier would constitute intentional mens rea because Bob acted intentionally to rob Florence.

Next, knowing mens rea means that an offender takes action knowing that the criminal activity will be the result of his actions. For instance, if Bob's friend asked to borrow the keys to Bob's job at a local bank, and Bob knew that his friend was a bank robber but lent him the keys anyway, Bob would likely have a knowing mens rea if the bank was robbed. Bob allowed his friend to take the keys to the bank knowing that his friend was a bank robber.

The next type of mens rea is reckless mens rea. A reckless mens rea occurs when an offender makes a decision to engage in behavior even though he is aware of the risks involved. So let's say that Bob visits a bar and has a bit too much to drink. He is way above the legal limit and staggers out to the car. He is completely aware of the risks he poses by driving drunk, but he decides to drive home anyway. Bob causes an accident, seriously injuring passengers in another car. Bob had a reckless mens rea. He did not intend to cause harm but was aware of the risk of harm when driving drunk.

Finally, there is negligent mens rea. Under negligent mens rea, sometimes called criminal negligence, a person simply fails to appreciate the risks of harm. When this standard is used, the court will ask whether a reasonable person in that same situation would have acted differently. For example, if a child's caretaker leaves the child alone in a park and the child dies after falling from the monkey bars, this could constitute criminal negligence.


So now you know about the actus reus and mens rea. Well, in order to have a crime, you need the act and mental state to occur at the same time. You cannot have one without the other. This is known as concurrence, and it is the final basic component of crime.

Other Features of Crime

In addition to the basic three components of crime, there are five other principles that underscore the legal concept of crime. Some scholars claim that these five concepts are additional elements that must be present in addition to the other three basic components of crime. These five features include:

  • Causation
  • Harm
  • Legality
  • Punishment
  • Attendant circumstances

Let's take a brief look at each one of these.

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