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Intention is defined in R. v Mohan as "the decision to bring about a prohibited consequence."
A range of words represents shades of intention in criminal laws around the world. The mental element, or mens rea, of murder, for example, is traditionally expressed as malice aforethought, and the interpretations of malice, "maliciously" and "wilfully" vary between pure intention and recklessness depending on the jurisdiction in which the crime was committed and the seriousness of the offence.
A person intends a consequence they foresee that it will happen if the given series of acts or omissions continue, and desires it to happen. The most serious level of culpability, justifying the most serious levels of punishment, is achieved when both these components are actually present in the accused's mind (a "subjective" test). A person who plans and executes a crime is considered, rightly or wrongly, a more serious danger to the public than one who acts spontaneously (perhaps because they are less likely to get caught), whether out of the sudden opportunity to steal, or out of anger to injure another. But intention can also come from the common law viewpoint as well.
Black's Law Dictionary and People v. Moore state the definition of Criminal Intent as "The intent to commit a crime: malice, as evidenced by a criminal act; an intent to deprive or defraud the true owner of his property."
The policy issue for those who administer the criminal justice system is that, when planning their actions, people may be aware of many probable and possible consequences. Obviously, all of these consequences could be prevented through the simple expedient either of ceasing the given activity or of taking action rather than refraining from action. So the decision to continue with the current plan means that all the foreseen consequences are to some extent intentional, i.e. within and not against the scope of each person's intention. But, is the test of culpability based on purely a subjective measure of what is in a person's mind, or does a court measure the degree of fault by using objective tools?
For example, suppose that A, a jealous wife, discovers that her husband is having a sexual affair with B. Wishing only to drive B away from the neighbourhood, she goes to B's house one night, pours petrol on and sets fire to the front door. B dies in the resulting fire. A is shocked and horrified. It did not occur to her that B might be physically in danger and there was no conscious plan in her mind to injure B when the fire began. But when A's behaviour is analysed, B's death must be intentional. If A had genuinely wished to avoid any possibility of injury to B, she would not have started the fire. Or, if verbally warning B to leave was not an option, she should have waited until B was seen to leave the house before starting the fire. As it was, she waited until night when it was more likely that B would be at home and there would be fewer people around to raise the alarm.
On a purely subjective basis, A intended to render B's house uninhabitable, so a reasonably substantial fire was required. The reasonable person would have foreseen a probability that people would be exposed to the risk of injury. Anyone in the house, neighbours, people passing by, and members of the fire service would all be in danger. The court therefore assesses the degree of probability that B or any other person might be in the house at that time of the night. The more certain the reasonable person would have been, the more justifiable it is to impute sufficient desire to convert what would otherwise only have been recklessness into intention to constitute the offence of murder. But if the degree of probability is lower, the court finds only recklessness proved. Some states once had a rule that a death that occurred during commission of a felony automatically imputed sufficient mens rea for murder. (See felony murder). This rule has been mostly abolished, and direct evidence of the required mental components is now required. Thus, the courts of most states use a hybrid test of intention, combining both subjective and objective elements, for each offence changed.
In English law, s8 Criminal Justice Act 1967 provides a statutory framework within which mens rea is assessed. It states:
Under s8(b) therefore, the jury is allowed a wide latitude in applying a hybrid test to impute intention or foresight (for the purposes of recklessness) on the basis of all the evidence. See Intention in English law.
In some states, a distinction is made between an offense of basic (sometimes termed "general") intent and an offense of specific intent.
At times a forensic psychiatric examination may be helpful in ascertaining the presence or absence of mens rea in crimes which require specific intent.
Direct intent: a person has direct intent when they intend a particular consequence of their act.
Oblique intent: a person has oblique intent when the event is a natural consequence of a voluntary act and they foresee it as such. The 'natural consequence' definition was replaced in R v Woollin with the 'virtually certain' test. A person is now held to intend a consequence (obliquely) when that consequence is a virtually certain consequence of their action, and they knew it to be a virtually certain consequence. The first leg of this test has been condemned as unnecessary: a person should be held as intending a consequence if (s)he believed it to be a virtually certain consequence, regardless of whether it was in fact virtually certain.
This has two applications:
In Holloway v. United States, the United States Supreme Court case upheld the use of "conditional intent" as a necessary element of the crime of carjacking. Conditional intent means that a defendant may not negate a proscribed intent merely by requiring the victim to comply with a condition. For example, a person saying, "Get out of the car or I'll shoot you" satisfies the "intent to kill" – so long as the prosecution can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant would have at least attempted to harm or kill if the victim had not complied (in other words, the prosecution must show that the threat was real, and not a bluff).
In many situations in the United States, a person is considered to have acted with intent if the definitions of purpose and/or knowledge are satisfied. In other situations (especially regarding specific intent crimes that have "with intent to" in their definition), intent may be considered to refer to purpose only. Quite arguably, the most influential legal definitions of purpose and knowledge come from the Model Penal Code's definitions of mens rea.