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In general, there are three elements of every crime. A person must:
Do a criminal act.
With a criminal mindset.
The mindset had to cause the criminal action.
The prosecution must prove each of these elements beyond a reasonable doubt to convict someone of a crime in California. Without even one of these elements, a criminal case can fall flat.
Let’s look at how each of these elements works.
The first element of a crime a prosecutor must prove is the actus reus or the unlawful action.
Each California crime lists the illegal action. Some crimes only require one action. To commit battery, someone must use force or violence against another person. Punching someone in a fight constitutes battery.
Other crimes require multiple factors. Assault in California requires both the attempt at force and the ability to commit an injury to someone else. Threatening to punch someone in a fight, and being close enough to hit them, is assault.
For some crimes, the action comes merely from talking. Perjury involves lying under oath and is a crime in California. Criminal acts can also come from omissions or failure to take any action someone is legally required to perform. For example, a parent who fails to pay court-ordered child support is failing to perform a legal obligation.
Acts have to be voluntary to be part of a crime. Thus, an act done while sneezing or sleepwalking is not voluntary and can’t lead to criminal liability.
The Mental State
Second, the prosecution must prove the defendant’s mens rea or guilty mind. The defendant must have intended to commit the act. Reflexive actions or actions done in self-defense lack the requisite mental states of criminal acts.
California categorizes this element of a crime into specific intent crimes, general intent crimes, and strict liability crimes. In specific intent and general intent crimes, prosecutors have to prove the defendant’s mindset in order to make their case.
Specific Intent Crimes
Some California crimes have specific mental states, which are specific intents written into the statute.
For example, to convict someone of murder, the prosecution must prove they had “malice aforethought.” In other words, the killing must be planned or premeditated. If someone died as a result of an accident, there was no intention to kill and, therefore, no murder.
Similarly, to be convicted of burglary, the defendant must break into a home or dwelling with the specific intention of committing larceny or a felony inside. Someone who breaks into a home to take a nap isn’t committing burglary because they don’t have the intent to steal.
General Intent Crimes
Other crimes don’t have a specific intention listed in the statute. For these crimes, a prosecutor only needs to prove that the defendant intended to commit the action, even if they didn’t know it was illegal.
Battery is a general intent crime. It only requires someone to use force or violence against another person. The person throwing a punch doesn’t need to know that it’s illegal; they need to know their fist will hit someone else.
Strict Liability Crimes
A few crimes don’t require any intention at all. These are known as strict liability crimes. Simply committing the action, regardless of intention, is enough to convict someone of these crimes.
In California, strict liability crimes include sex crimes against minors and driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
For example, in driving under the influence cases, the prosecutor doesn’t need to prove the defendant intended to commit a crime. Instead, all they need to prove is that the defendant drove while intoxicated.
Finally, the prosecution needs to prove that the defendant caused harm to the alleged victim.
In some cases, causation is straightforward. In others, it can be extremely complicated to follow the chain of events that led to a crime being committed.
Often, lawyers break up the causation element into two separate categories: cause in fact and proximate (or legal) cause.
Cause In Fact
Think of cause in fact like a chain of dominos. If you knock over the first domino, it causes other dominos to fall. Similarly, if someone lights a match, throws it onto a pile of rags in the living room, and the house burns down, that person is the cause of a house fire.
Some crimes, like murder, require a specific result. In a murder case, not only does the defendant have to have committed a criminal act with the proper intention, but the alleged victim also has to be dead.
Someone can only be guilty of the crime if their actions were the actual cause or cause in fact of a harm.
Proximate cause can be a complex legal concept to understand. Even if someone pushed over a metaphorical domino that harmed an alleged victim, their actions also need to be the legal cause of harm.
Proximate cause looks at how far removed the inciting event was from the outcome. If the domino chain was too long, it might not be fair for a defendant to take responsibility for the harm.
Let’s look at an example. Joe steals Dave’s car. Dave doesn’t have a vehicle, so he takes the bus to work. The bus drops Dave off next to a pothole that a road worker didn’t fill in. Dave doesn’t see the pothole and breaks his ankle. Dave is a heart surgeon and can’t work that day. Dave can’t operate on a little girl, and she passes away.
Joe stole Dave’s car, which created the chain of events leading to the girl’s death, so he’s partially the cause in fact. But, it’s a long chain of events between the car theft and the death, so Joe probably isn’t the legal cause of her death. Unless Joe knew that Dave was supposed to operate on the girl, her death wasn’t foreseeable when Joe stole Dave’s car, so Joe can’t be the proximate cause of her death.
Consulting With An Attorney
Crimes require a criminal action, a criminal mental state, and a link between the two. If the defendant’s actions were too far removed from the alleged victim’s harm, the defendant can’t be responsible for a crime.
If the prosecutor isn’t able to prove each element of the case beyond a reasonable doubt, the jury must return a not guilty verdict.
If you’ve been charged with a crime, consider having an experienced lawyer from My Rights Law at your side to help counter the prosecutor’s case against you. Call My Rights Law at (888) 702-8882 or fill out our secure contact form for a free consultation.