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Criminal Law
South Texas College of Law Houston
Corn, Geoffrey S.

Criminal Law Outline

Geoffrey Corn—Spring 2011

Sources of Criminal Law:

1) Common Law

2) Statutory

3) MPC

Principle of legality: – presumption of innocence given to those charged. Limits the state’s discretion in condemning alleged criminals. State must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty

· Proof beyond a reasonable doubt: Proof that excludes every hypothesis except guilt

· Doctrine of lenity- “tie goes to the defendant”. Used when court has exhausted all interpretive mechanisms and still cannot come up with an answer

4 pillars of a crime

State must prove all 4 beyond a reasonable doubt to convict

1) Actus Reus

2) Mens Rea

3) Causation

4) Attendant Circumstance

Understanding the pillars

Actus Reus:

o Actus: The act itself (the physical external part of a crime; raising gun and pulling trigger)

o Reus: Prohibited result

o Volition: voluntariness of actor in performing (necessary to have)

· Actus Reus in omission

o Omission+duty to act=crime

o Duty to act found in:

§ Familial relationship (father/son; husband/wife)

§ Legal duty

§ Contractual duty

§ Assuming role of caregiver

· Stopping and assisting someone after an accident

§ Creating the danger

· Actus Reus in possession

o Possession must be volitional

o Knowledge/awareness

Mens Rea:

o the conscionable state of mind one is in regarding the social harm of the act

o An act does not make the actor guilty, unless the mind be guilty; that is, unless the intent be criminal

· Culpability theory: Acting with any culpable state of mind (old). Essentially acting to produce an outcome (strict liability & Felony Murder)

· Elemental theory: state must prove that D acted with a culpable state of mind in each material element of the offense

Common law Mens Rea elements

· Intent

o Purpose or knowledge

· Recklessness

· Negligence

Heirarchy culpability of MPC Mens Rea elements:

· Purpose: conscious objective to achieve outcome

· Knowledge: knowledge of substantial certainty that a prohibited result will follow his conduct; expect the outcome to occur

o The above 2 are essentially intent; intent is never presumed, it is always inferred

· Recklessness: conscious disregard of a risk unjustifiably; there’s a risk for a certain outcome, but it is not expected

· Negligence: failing to appreciate a risk that others would; gross deviation to appreciate a risk that any reasonable person would have seen

Piecing together the idea:

Volition generates act, mens rea is the bridge that links act to prohibited result. Without bridge all you have is act and outcome.

· When it comes to state of mind, oftentimes the jury will draw inferences from the circumstances surrounding the harm.

· Circumstances don’t lie, people do.

A Further look into intent:

Understanding one’s intent or other mental state of mind is necessary in determining their guilt

Common law intent is ordinarily defined in not only those results that are the conscious objective of the actor (purpose), but also those results that the actor knows are virtually certain to occur from his conduct, even if he does not want them to arise. (knowledge)

General/specific intent:

Been abandoned in jurisdictions using the MPC, but still used in some states

· General intent

o When there is only one mens rea element and it relates to the act, that is general intent (battery-unlawful touching of another)

o Assigned when statute describing offense does not require a certain state of mind

o Used in offenses that permit conviction on basis of less culpable state of mind

o Used when any mental state is used in definition of the offense that relates solely to the acts that constitute the harm (battery: intentional application of force on another. Pertains exclusively to the state of mind the actor must possess regarding the actus reus)

o Been abandoned in jurisdictions using the MPC, but still used in some states

· Specific intent

o Assigned when mental state is set forth in statute (mens rea element expressed)

o Used when a statute has in its language a mental element required to satisfy offense an


– Damn near impossible to get as defense

– Law does not grant ignorance or misunderstanding of law as excuse

o The exception is if knowledge of the law is an element in the offense

– 2 instances where mistake of law is a defense

o When knowledge of law is specific intent element of offense

§ Mistake must only be honest

§ Kidnapping: person must know they don’t have the authority to take person

§ for this theory to work with a mistake of law claim, the specific intent element MUST require proof that D knew the law he was violating

§ Cheek: Supreme Court interpreted the tax statute element of “willful” as requiring proof that D knew of the legal requirement to report earnings as income. This meant that to convict Cheek, the finder of fact must believe beyond a reasonable doubt that when Cheek failed to report his income, he KNEW he was legally obligated to do so

§ If prosecution cannot prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Cheek KNEW (no matter how unreasonable his belief was) he was violating the law, he must be acquitted

§ Juries will often infer that what is being argued as an honest mistake is not when that belief is just no credible

o Theory of estoppel

§ Relying on an authoritative figure of the law

· Parking cop says you can park somewhere; you do in reliance of his word. But then are issued a ticket because you actually couldn’t

o Mistake of law is relevant because cop said you could

§ When a defendant relies to her detriment on a statement of the law from a person or entity with official authority to interpret the law (which includes enforce), the government is barred from then prosecuting the individual. But, it must be reliance, it must be a proper source of authority.