Criminal Responsibility: Definition, Evaluation & Legal Defenses

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  • 0:01 What Is Criminal…
  • 0:58 Mental States
  • 3:24 Evaluation
  • 4:44 Common Legal Defenses
  • 6:46 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Brittany McKenna

Brittany is a licensed attorney who specializes in criminal law, legal writing, and appellate practice and procedure.

In this lesson, you will be introduced to the concept of criminal responsibility. Learn about the ways in which criminal responsibility is evaluated, as well as the common legal defenses to criminal responsibility.

What Is Criminal Responsibility?


Carl is driving down a busy street when he strikes and kills a pedestrian. Is Carl guilty of a crime? The answer is: it depends. In order to convict Carl of a crime, Carl's state of mind at the time of the accident must be evaluated. The concept of criminal responsibility concerns the different mental states related to crimes, the ways in which those mental states are evaluated, and the variety of associated defenses.

The term criminal responsibility refers to a person's ability to understand his or her conduct at the time a crime is committed. In other words, what a person is thinking when he commits a crime, or what result is anticipated or expected when a crime is committed. Laws define crimes in terms of an act or omission (actus reas) and a mental state (mens reas). Criminal responsibility relates to the mental state element of a crime.

Mental States

A culpable (guilty) mental state is a necessary element of every crime. In order to be convicted of a particular crime, there must be proof that the actor (the person engaged in the alleged criminal conduct) possessed the requisite state of mind when the crime was committed.

The mental states covered in this lesson are: intentional, knowing, wanton (or reckless), and negligent. Keep in mind that these are general definitions that may vary slightly depending on the jurisdiction.

An intentional mental state means that the actor consciously engages in the conduct, or that the actor's conscious objective is to bring about a particular result. For example, if Carl Criminal uses a hammer to break the window of Vinny Victim's home so that he can enter and take Vinny's valuables, Carl has acted intentionally with respect to burglary. Intentional crimes are usually punished more severely than other crimes.

A knowing mental state means that the actor is aware that his or her conduct is criminal, or is aware that his or her conduct will bring about a particular result. So, if Carl Criminal is aware that the tools he bought from Timothy Thief were stolen from the hardware store, Carl has acted knowingly in respect to receiving stolen property.

A wanton or reckless mental state means that the actor consciously disregards a substantial risk that his or her conduct will bring about a particular result. For example, if Carl Criminal, in a rush of excitement after his favorite football team kicks a winning field goal, fires a gun into a crowd of people and injures or kills someone, he has acted wantonly. Carl never intended to hurt anyone, but he was aware that firing a gun into a crowd of people presented a substantial risk of injury or death, and yet he consciously disregarded that risk.

A negligent mental state means that the actor is unaware that his or her conduct is risky or dangerous, but a reasonable person in the same situation would appreciate the risk. An example of a negligent mental state is when Carl Criminal, in a hurry to get to work, drives his car through the red light at a busy intersection and strikes another car. Carl certainly didn't mean to hurt anyone; in fact, he didn't even see the light change from yellow to red! But nevertheless, his conduct was dangerous, and a reasonable person would have been aware of the risk.


A careful and diligent evaluation of the actor's criminal responsibility is an important element in every criminal trial. Remember - if there's no proof that an actor possessed the requisite mental state at the time a crime was committed, the actor cannot be convicted of that crime.

Often times, experts will be consulted to help determine an actor's mental state. Many psychologists, forensic investigators, therapists, and other mental health professionals are trained in the methods of evaluating criminal responsibility. These professionals may analyze a variety of factors when assessing criminal responsibility, including:

  1. The actor's narrative of what occurred
  2. The actor's behavior before, during, and after the commission of the crime
  3. Any history of mental illness or psychological conditions
  4. The results of psychological tests

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