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6.3 The Nature of a Criminal Act

Learning Objectives

  1. Understand how it is possible to commit a criminal act without actually doing anything that you think might be criminal.
  2. Analyze and explain the importance of intention in criminal law and criminal prosecutions.
  3. Explain how a corporation can be guilty of a crime, even though it is a corporation’s agents that commit the crime.

To be guilty of a crime, you must have acted. Mental desire or intent to do so is insufficient. But what constitutes an act? This question becomes important when someone begins to commit a crime, or does so in association with others, or intends to do one thing but winds up doing something else.

Attempt

It is not necessary to commit the intended crime to be found guilty of a criminal offense. An attempt to commit the crime is punishable as well, though usually not as severely. For example, Brett points a gun at Ashley, intending to shoot her dead. He pulls the trigger but his aim is off, and he misses her heart by four feet. He is guilty of an attempt to murder. Suppose, however, that earlier in the day, when he was preparing to shoot Ashley, Brett had been overheard in his apartment muttering to himself of his intention, and that a neighbor called the police. When they arrived, he was just snapping his gun into his shoulder holster.

At that point, courts in most states would not consider him guilty of an attempt because he had not passed beyond the stage of preparation. After having buttoned his jacket he might have reconsidered and put the gun away. Determining when the accused has passed beyond mere preparation and taken an actual step toward perpetrating the crime is often difficult and is usually for the jury to decide.

Impossibility

What if a defendant is accused of attempting a crime that is factually impossible? For example, suppose that men believed they were raping a drunken, unconscious woman, and were later accused of attempted rape, but defended on the grounds of factual impossibility because the woman was actually dead at the time sexual intercourse took place? Or suppose that a husband intended to poison his wife with strychnine in her coffee, but put sugar in the coffee instead? The “mens rea” or criminal intent was there, but the act itself was not criminal (rape requires a live victim, and murder by poisoning requires the use of poison). States are divided on this, but thirty-seven states have ruled out factual impossibility as a defense to the crime of attempt.

Legal impossibility is different, and is usually acknowledged as a valid defense. If the defendant completes all of his intended acts, but those acts do not fulfill all the required elements of a crime, there could be a successful “impossibility” defense. If Barney (who has poor sight), shoots at a tree stump, thinking it is his neighbor, Ralph, intending to kill him, has he committed an attempt? Many courts would hold that he has not. But the distinction between factual impossibility and legal impossibility is not always clear, and the trend seems to be to punish the intended attempt.

Conspiracy

Under both federal and state laws, it is a separate offense to work with others toward the commission of a crime. When two or more people combine to carry out an unlawful purpose, they are engaged in a conspiracy. The law of conspiracy is quite broad, especially when it is used by prosecutors in connection with white-collar crimes. Many people can be swept up in the net of conspiracy, because it is unnecessary to show that the actions they took were sufficient to constitute either the crime or an attempt. Usually, the prosecution needs to show only (1) an agreement and (2) a single overt act in furtherance of the conspiracy. Thus if three people agree to rob a bank, and if one of them goes to a store to purchase a gun to be used in the holdup, the three can be convicted of conspiracy to commit robbery. Even the purchase of an automobile to be used as the getaway car could support a conspiracy conviction.

The act of any one of the conspirators is imputed to the other members of the conspiracy. It does not matter, for instance, that only one of the bank robbers fired the gun that killed a guard. All can be convicted of murder. That is so even if one of the conspirators was stationed as a lookout several blocks away and even if he specifically told the others that his agreement to cooperate would end “just as soon as there is shooting.”

Agency and Corporations

A person can be guilty of a crime if he acts through another. Again, the usual reason for “imputing” the guilt of the actor to another is that both were engaged in a conspiracy. But imputation of guilt is not limited to a conspiracy. The agent may be innocent even though he participates. A corporate officer directs a junior employee to take a certain bag and deliver it to the officer’s home. The employee reasonably believes that the officer is entitled to the bag. Unbeknownst to the employee, the bag contains money that belongs to the company, and the officer wishes to keep it. This is not a conspiracy. The employee is not guilty of larceny, but the officer is, because the agent’s act is imputed to him.

Since intent is a necessary component of crime, an agent’s intent cannot be imputed to his principal if the principal did not share the intent. The company president tells her sales manager, “Go make sure our biggest customer renews his contract for next year”—by which she meant, “Don’t ignore our biggest customer.” Standing before the customer’s purchasing agent, the sales manager threatens to tell the purchasing agent’s boss that the purchasing agent has been cheating on his expense account, unless he signs a new contract. The sales manager could be convicted of blackmail, but the company president could not.

Can a corporation be guilty of a crime? For many types of crimes, the guilt of individual employees may be imputed to the corporation. Thus the antitrust statutes explicitly state that the corporation may be convicted and fined for violations by employees. This is so even though the shareholders are the ones who ultimately must pay the price—and who may have had nothing to do with the crime nor the power to stop it. The law of corporate criminal responsibility has been changing in recent years. The tendency is to hold the corporation liable under criminal law if the act has been directed by a responsible officer or group within the corporation (the president or board of directors).

Key Takeaway

Although proving the intent to commit a crime (the mens rea) is essential, the intent can be established by inference (circumstantially). Conspirators may not actually commit a crime, for example, but in preparing for a criminal act, they may be guilty of the crime of conspiracy. Certain corporate officers, as well, may not be directly committing criminal acts but may be held criminally responsible for acts of their agents and contractors.

Exercises

  1. Give an example of how someone can intend to commit a crime but fail to commit one.
  2. Describe a situation where there is a conspiracy to commit a crime without the crime actually taking place.
  3. Create a scenario based on current events where a corporation could be found guilty of committing a crime even though the CEO, the board of directors, and the shareholders have not themselves done a criminal act.