Ulterior Motive: Definition & Law

Instructor: Erin Krcatovich

Erin teaches undergraduate and graduate classes in Political Science, Public Policy, and Public Administration and has a PhD in Political Science.

This lesson will cover the concept of an ulterior motive as an explanation for both criminal and police behavior. We will define it and then explain the case of Whren v. U.S. (1996), which debates the ulterior motives of the police when conducting traffic stops.

Elements of a Crime

A crime is often defined by three elements: means, motive, and opportunity. Means is the way in which a crime happened--a criminal had access to the gun used in a robbery, for example. Motive is the rationale behind why a crime is committed. A person may premeditate, or plan a crime in advance, or it may happen in the spur of the moment. Opportunity is the ability to carry out that crime, such as being in the same area where the crime occurred without an adequate alibi to explain one's whereabouts at the time of the crime.

In this lesson, we will learn about ulterior motive, which is the final explanation for why an action happened--anger, jealousy, mental instability, racial discrimination, and so on.

What is an Ulterior Motive?

A motive reflects the desires of a person when he or she carries out some action. If you get into your car and start the engine, your actions probably reflect a desire to drive to another location. However, there are lots of reasons why you may turn your car on but not intend to drive anywhere--you need to check the fuel gauge, you are trying to warm up or cool down the vehicle, or any other reason. Thus, we need to distinguish between the motives, or reasons, behind someone's behavior.

An ulterior motive is the final or ultimate reason why an action occurred. Did a person get shot because someone wanted to hurt him, or was he shot by accident? A prosecutor will attempt to present an explanation of the crime that points at the ulterior motive, and the defense will offer a counter explanation that shows the accused person is innocent or only guilty of a lesser charge (recklessness instead of maliciousness, for example).

Related, the police are often accused of having an ulterior motive when they stop and frisk someone on the street or conduct a traffic stop. In high-crime areas, the police may be racially profiling minorities who did not commit a crime out of a suspicion about their behavior. We will consider one such case that came before the Supreme Court in 1996 next.

Whren v. U.S. (1996)

The case of Whren v. U.S. (1996) brought up the highly controversial topic of racial bias by police as an ulterior motive. In this case, the Court considered whether a police officer must have a relevant reason to stop someone for a traffic violation (like speeding) before also looking for evidence of other crimes (like drug possession in the car).

In the case, the police were patrolling a high-crime neighborhood in Washington D.C. They noticed a vehicle stopped for a very long time at a traffic light before the driver noticed them and sped away. The driver did not signal but seemed to make an abrupt right turn--possibly to get away from the police.

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