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Criminal Law
Wayne State University Law School
Dillof, Anthony M.




-Actus Reus
· “Bad Act”
· Physical or external part of the crime
· Conduct (sometimes you don’t need result: drunk driving; speeding)
· Conduct + Result
-Mens Rea
· “Guilty Mind”
· Mental State (ex. w/ intent to …)
-Attendant Circumstances
· Circumstances that exist independent of what actor does.
· Ex. age, at night, drunk…


-Culpability Requirement

-Attendant Circumstances



Voluntary & Involuntary Acts

Why require a voluntary act?
Utilitarians – Deterrence: a person who acts involuntarily cannot be deterred. Therefore it is useless to punish the involuntary actor.
Retributivists – blame and punishment presuppose free will: a person does not deserve to be punished unless he chooses to put his bad thoughts into action.
Why not punish thoughts (like minority report)?
Utilitarian justification for the requirement of conduct:
– If the government punished thoughts they would be violating mental privacy and it would not be a pleasant society to live in
– Utilitarians seek deter through punishment and thoughts are not deterrable.
Retributive reasoning for the requirement of conduct:
– Retributive theory only justifies punishment of those who freely choose to harm others. The retributivist requirement that it is morally wrong to punish people for their un-acted upon intentions.
– You should be punished based on the harm that you caused. If you have DONE nothing, there is nothing to be punished for.



Actus Reus Includes 3 Elements of a Crime: voluntary act (or omission) that (2) causes (3) social harm

VOLUNTARY ACTà a willed muscular contraction or bodily movement; controlled by actor’s mind..

State v. Utter (124)—VOLUNTARY ACT
D stabbed his son to death after drinking all day but had no recollection of his act. D argued his act was an autonomic response. Held: when the state of unconsciousness is voluntarily induced through the use of drugs or alcohol, the state of consciousness is not a complete defense.

INVOLUNTARY ACTS: Reflex actions, Seizures, Convulsions, Acts occuring while person is unconscious/asleep, Hypnotic State.

AUTOMATISM: existence in any person of behavior of which he is unaware & over which he has no conscious control.(defense to a crime in some states).

POSESSION: voluntary act if person VOLUNTARILY takes control of the object or OMITS his duty to dispossess himself of the article

Martin v. State (122) – NO VOLUNTARY ACT
D, after being arrested while intoxicated at his home, was taken by officers to a highway where he illegally used loud and profane language and was convicted of being drunk on a public highway. Held: D was carried to the public place involuntarily,so NOT GUILTY. Criminal liability must be based on conduct which includes a voluntary act or omission.
W/in narrow timeframeà placed onto highway involuntarily.
W/in broad timeframeà May suggest that D became drunk voluntarily and thus was guilty.

Confusing Cases:
à Act not involuntary just b/c actor does not remember performing it.
à Act not involuntary just b/c someone coerced the actor to do it.

D was a epileptic who killed 4 children when the car he was driving went out of control during a seizure. HELD: D guilty b/c he knew that he was susceptible to seizures but failed to take proper precautions.
W/in narrow timeframeà seizure was involuntary, BUT
W/in broad timeframe à getting into car, driving à voluntary acts

ACT: MPC § 1.13(2): a bodily movement: voluntary or involuntary.

VOLUNTARY ACT: MPC § 2.01(1): person is not guilty of an offense unless his liability is based on conduct which includes a voluntary act [or the omission to perform an act of which he is physically capable and has a legal duty].

(a) reflex or convulsion
(b) bodily movement during unconsciousness or sleep
(c) conduct during hypnosis/resulting from hypnotic suggestion
(d) bodily movement that otherwise is not a product of the effort of determination of the actor, either conscious or habitual

POSESSION MPC § 2.01(4): “possession is an act…if the possessor knowingly procured or received the thing possessed or was aware of his control thereof for a sufficient period to have been able to terminate his possession.”


Why don’t we generally punish people for omissions?

difficult to prove that the person who failed to act had the requisite mens rea for an offense.
difficult to draw the line of who should be punished: ex. 50 people watch the perpetration of a crime & do nothing.
Promoting individual liberty means not coercing people
Bystanders often make situation worse

CL: Omission


OMISSION: something that permits harm to occur. A withdrawal of a benefit returning a person to the status quo (baseline)
à usually, no legal duty to act (w/ exceptions)

EXCEPTIONS: Situations where legal duty to act if physically capable (Jones v. U.S):.
(1) statutory duty (tax returns, provide food/shelter to minor kids)
(2) status relation (children, spouses, master-servant, State v. Williams)
(3) Contractual duty (lifeguard, babysitter, caregiver)
(4) Prevents others from aiding (one you start aiding, cant give up)
(5) Creates risk of further harm (driver hits pedestrian)

People v. Beardsley – not liable for omission; no duty
D failed to get help for a friend who overdosed

GENERAL INTENT: offense requires proof of a culpable mental state, but which is not a specific-intent offense, falls under the umbrella of “general intent”
Example: CL battery is an “unlawful application of force to the person of another.” (AR committed wrongfully à in a morally blameworthy manner.)

PURPOSELY : conscious object to engage in the conduct or to cause the result which is the nature of the crime; and awareness, belief or hope of the existence of the [attendant] circumstances

KNOWINGLY : awareness that conduct or nature of circumstances exist
awareness that it is practically certain that conduct will cause result..

RECKLESSLY : Consciously disregards a substantial and unjustifiable risk that the material element exists or will result from his conduct in a gross deviation of what a law-abiding person would do. [conscious disregard, actual awareness]

NEGLIGENTLY : Fails to perceive “substantial and unjustifiable risk” constituting a “gross deviation from standard of care a reasonable person would observe in the actor’s situation Generally conforms with the CL definition. [no awareness of the risk, hypothetical awareness, a reasonable person would be aware].

“In the actor’s situation” : incorporates more subjectivity into the objective standard than is permitted at CL. Lets courts determine “reasonable person”

2.02(1): Liability if C+R+AC + MR(C)+MR(R)+MR(AC).

2.02(3): Default: if statute does not specify mental state required, P, K, R will do.

2.02(4): Distributive principle: if in offense there is some mens rea term, then it is going to apply to all the elements unless “contrary purpose plainly appears.”

2.02(5): Hierarchy of culpability. If the lower MR is required, it will be satisfied by the higher MR. (ex. purposely satisfies negligence requirement)

2.02(6): Conditional intent: when a particular purpose is an element of an offense, the element is established even if the purpose is conditional (element established intent realized upon certain conditions); unless the condition negatives the harm or evil sought to be prevented by the law defining the offense.

People v. Conley: D hit victim in face w/ wine bottle (intending to hit another) charged w/ aggravated battery. Offense occurs when person commits a battery intentionally or knowingly …and (1) causes bodily harm to individual (AR) or (2) makes physical contact of an insulting or provoking nature with an individual (AR).
Held: For liablity for aggravated battery must purposely or knowingly cause bodily harm. Is this the correct holding?