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What Is Known As The Guilty Act?

Most people don’t spend much time in court. As a result, many legal terms may be unfamiliar. These unfamiliar terms can cause anxiety when you are facing criminal charges. This guide explains what the guilty act is and how it may impact your case.

Elements of a Crime

There are two elements to every crime. One is the criminal act and the other is the required mental state for a person to be guilty of that criminal act.

The criminal act is “actus reas,” or “the guilty act.” The required mental state is “mens reas,” or “the guilty mind.”

The Guilty Act

Because of the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment in the U.S. Constitution, laws in the United States are based on actions. U.S. criminal laws do not punish people for their thoughts or their status.

A guilty act can be either an action or a failure to act. The specific actions or inactions that apply vary depending on the applicable laws.

Actions can be general, such as in South Carolina’s murder law. South Carolina statute defines murder as “the killing of any person with malice aforethought, either express or implied.”

In this case, the general action of killing another person is the guilty act. The law does not require a person to kill someone in a specific way for it to be murder.

By contrast, South Carolina’s law that makes dueling illegal specifies that it is, “unlawful for a person to challenge another to fight with a sword, pistol, rapier, or any other deadly weapon or to accept a challenge.” In this case, the law defines the specific action of challenging a person to fight with a deadly weapon as being illegal, rather than the general action of challenging a person to a fight.

Crimes Involving the Failure To Act

Most crimes require a person to specifically do something, but some involve failing to do something. When a crime involves a failure to act, the prosecution must prove:

  • The defendant had a legal duty to act
  • The defendant knew that he needed to act
  • The defendant could act

Defendants may have a legal duty to act when:

  • They have a special relationship to the victim, such as parent/child, husband/wife or employer/employee
  • A statutory duty exists, such as the South Carolina law that requires people with knowledge of a hazing event to report it
  • A private contract exists that establishes a legal duty to act, such as a bodyguard under contract to protect a person

In rare circumstances, a person may be legally liable for a failure to act when that person had no legal duty. For example, if a person voluntarily attempts to help a victim, but abandons the effort leaving the victim worse off, criminal liability may result.

As an example, suppose a bystander with no relationship to a person being mugged announces he is calling the police, causing other bystanders to not call the police. The bystander then decides not to call the police.

While the bystander has no legal duty to the victim, criminal liability could result because had the bystander not failed to call the police after telling everyone that he would, someone else would have called. If no one else was around and the person just stood there watching someone get mugged, that person would generally not be liable for a failure to act, because a moral duty is not a legal duty to act.

Ignorance of the Law

In most cases, ignorance of the law will not absolve a person from committing a crime. However, some laws specify that a person must know what they are doing is illegal for it to be a crime.

As an example, it is illegal under South Carolina law to, “knowingly permit or assist any person,” in committing any act made illegal by South Carolina’s anti-hazing law. In this case, the person must know they are helping or allowing someone to commit a crime to be criminally liable.

Involuntary Actions

In most cases, a person must do something voluntarily and consciously for it to be a guilty act. For example, a person who falls asleep at the wheel and crashes into and kills a pedestrian is probably not criminally liable if that person had no reason to suspect he may fall asleep at the wheel and injure someone.

However, if that person knew he had narcolepsy, had a previous history of falling asleep at the wheel, took barbiturates before driving or otherwise engaged in an activity that could cause sleepiness while driving, criminal liability could result.

The Guilty Mind

Proving a person committed a guilty act is only half the equation when attempting to secure a criminal conviction. The prosecution must also prove the person had the required mental state.

The guilty mind can involve the intent to commit a crime. It may also involve the knowledge that someone else intends to commit a crime or a reckless or negligent disregard for the safety of others.

Some laws specify a particular mens rea. For example, under South Carolina law, people are only guilty of murder when they kill someone with malice aforethought.

Many laws do not specify a particular mens rea. However, the court may still require the prosecution to prove some element of mens rea. For example, the Supreme Court of the United States instructs that when a federal criminal statute does not include a specific mental state, the government only needs to prove mens rea to the extent that it is necessary to separate wrongful from innocent conduct.

Impact of Mental State on Sentencing

In most states, the mental state of the defendant impacts not only whether the defendant is guilty, but how guilty they are. Generally, the government imposes harsher penalties on people who intentionally commit crimes.

There are four classifications of mens rea based on the Model Penal Code:

  1. Intent: The person was aware of what they were doing and wanted to commit a crime.
  2. Knowledge: The person knew his actions could result in a crime, but didn’t care.
  3. Recklessness: The person didn’t intend to commit a crime and didn’t expect a crime to occur but knew that his actions could result in an illegal act.
  4. Negligence: A person fails to meet the reasonable standards of behavior for the circumstances, resulting in a crime.

Some states add a fifth category called strict liability. Strict liability crimes do not require a mens rea. The government only needs to prove that the defendant committed the illegal act to obtain a conviction.

Malice Distinction

A few states apply either express or implied malice to determine the degree of criminal liability. Express malice applies when a person commits a crime with the intent to harm the victim. Implied malice applies when the person who committed the crime didn’t intend to harm the victim but was indifferent to whether the defendant’s actions would result in harm.

Help With Your Criminal Case

The law is more complex than merely determining if someone committed a guilty act. The criminal defense attorneys at Jeff Coat Carolina Defense Lawyers will help you understand the charges against you and formulate a defense based on all the applicable elements of the alleged crime. Contact us today to schedule a free case evaluation.

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