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The Elements of a Crime: Definition & Overview

The Elements of a Crime: Definition & Overview
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  • 0:02 The Four Elements of a Crime
  • 0:55 Mens Rea: The Guilty…
  • 2:31 Actus Reus: The Guilty Conduct
  • 3:26 Concurrence
  • 4:04 Causation
  • 4:47 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.

The elements of a crime refer to the facts that must be established in order to prove criminal liability. This lesson discusses the four common elements of a crime and provides some examples of each.

The Four Elements of a Crime

Do you remember your high school chemistry class? Imagine yourself sitting in front of glass beakers filled with bubbling liquids. Adding the liquids together in the correct amounts will cause a chemical reaction to occur. Strike the right balance, and you can create an entirely new chemical substance.

You may be surprised to learn that criminal law isn't that different from high school chemistry class. You must add the correct elements of a crime together in order to establish criminal liability, that is, to prove that a defendant is guilty of breaking the law.

In general, a crime consists of four elements: a mental state, conduct, concurrence, and causation. Crimes are defined by statutes, which are laws passed by legislatures. Statutes set forth the specific elements of each crime. Not all crimes are the same, as the statutes dictate which elements constitute a given crime.

Mens Rea: The Guilty Mental State

The mental state element, also known as mens rea, refers to the state of mind which the defendant possessed at the time the crime was committed. Another way of thinking about the mental state element is, 'What was the defendant's intent when he committed the crime?' Because a statute criminalizes certain behaviors, the mental state will often refer to a defendant's intent to break the law, or the defendant's awareness that his conduct is risky or dangerous.

There are a variety of different mental states that may define a criminal offense. The type of mental state depends on the how the crime is defined in the statute. Common mental states include purposeful (or intentional), reckless, wanton, and negligent. Murder, for example, usually requires a purposeful mental state, that is, a purposeful intention to kill the victim. On the other hand, some forms of manslaughter will require a negligent or reckless mental state.

Consider the following examples to better understand the difference between mental states. Danny Driver sees his ex-girlfriend walking down the street with her new lover. Danny has wanted to exact revenge on her for months, so he rams her with his car. Danny may be charged with intentional murder because he was purposeful in his effort to kill his ex-girlfriend. Now, imagine that Danny Driver has five or six beers before hopping behind the wheel of his car. On his way home, he swerves into oncoming traffic and strikes another vehicle head-on. Danny didn't mean to kill anyone, but his conduct (driving under the influence) was reckless; that is, he disregarded the danger inherent in his risky behavior.

Actus Reus: The Guilty Conduct

The guilty conduct, or guilty act, element refers to the illegal action (also known as a forbidden act) taken by the defendant that causes some kind of harm. This element is often referred to by the Latin phrase, actus reus. The harm caused may be physical harm, like a broken nose, or harm to property or finances. The guilty conduct element can be satisfied by an affirmative act or an omission by the defendant.

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