What Are the 4 Elements of a Crime in Minnesota?
An element of a crime, according to the United States justice system, is a fact the prosecution must prove to achieve a conviction in a criminal case. Also called elements of an offense, the prosecution must present evidence that proves beyond a reasonable doubt the defendant is guilty of committing the criminal offense in question.
Under U.S. law, four main elements of a crime exist:
Mental State (Mens Rea)
Mens rea is Latin for “guilty mind.” The legal theory of mens rea refers to criminal intent. The theory states that to convict a defendant of a crime, the prosecution must establish the defendant’s criminal intent. The prosecution must show evidence that the defendant had a culpable mental state at the time of committing the crime. In other words, that the defendant was in a right state of mind and had conscious intent to commit the crime.
To convict a person of a crime, that person must have voluntarily, intentionally, knowingly, or purposefully committed the act in question. Failing to possess the mental intention to commit the crime could result in a not-guilty verdict, since the defendant did not knowingly intend to break the law or cause bodily harm. This element of a crime will vary depending on the circumstances. In a murder case, for example, it is enough to establish proof of malice aforethought for mens rea. Other crimes may require knowing, willful, or reckless mens rea.
Conduct (Actus Reus)
The second element of a crime is actus reus, Latin for “guilty act.” Actus reus is a required element of a crime that means a criminal act, or the criminal omission of an act, must have actually occurred. It is not a crime to only have thought of an unlawful act, or to think criminal thoughts. In other words, mental state alone is not enough to convict a person of a crime. The defendant must have actually committed a crime.
Note that actus reus can refer to actions, omissions, or words. Unlike thoughts, words can constitute acts according to U.S. criminal law. Defamation, for example, is the crime of saying or publishing derogatory words about someone else. Perjury, threats, solicitation, and conspiracy are also word-related threats that can fulfill the element of actus reus in the U.S. criminal courts.
The prosecution cannot secure a conviction by only proving mens rea or actus reus. The defendant must have both mens rea and actus reus together – a guilty mind and the guilty act. Concurrence of the two must be present. Typically, the prosecution needs proof that the two occurred together, at the same time, to culminate in the crime in question. The guilty mind must coexist with or at least precede the guilty act. It does not necessarily matter whether mens rea was present up to the actus reus (such as premeditated crimes), as long as both concur at the same time during the criminal act. Mens rea must have motivated the conduct that led to the actus reus.
The fourth element of a crime is causation. The prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the crime would not have happened were it not for the defendant’s direct participation. The prosecution must use evidence to establish a causal relationship between the defendant’s conduct and the crime in question.
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The element of causation also requires proof that actual harm occurred because of the crime. Different crimes have different requirements for the element of causation. Murder cases, for example, require an actual killing and death. Aggravated battery requires bodily injuries. Without these damages, the act did not happen, and the courts cannot find the defendant guilty of committing a crime. The prosecution must have all four elements of a crime for the courts to convict the defendant.
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