What is Criminal Intent?
Intent is an important issue in many federal criminal cases. While some federal criminal statutes establish “strict liability” offenses—meaning that evidence of intent (or any other “guilty state of mind”) is not required, oftentimes the jury’s decision will rest on whether the U.S. Attorney’s Office is able to prove the defendant’s intent beyond a reasonable doubt.
The element of intent can also be the deciding factor for whether federal prosecutors bring civil or criminal charges. For example, the False Claims Act and Anti-Kickback Statute include provisions for both civil and criminal enforcement. If a healthcare provider or government contractor inadvertently over bills the government, then civil enforcement action may be warranted. But, if there is evidence of intentional billing fraud, this could expose the contractor or provider to criminal prosecution.
What is Intent in a Federal Criminal Case?
So, what is criminal intent? In this section, we provide an overview of: (i) the definition of criminal intent; (ii) when evidence of intent is required; and, (iii) the importance of timing when addressing the question of a defendant’s intent.
1. Understanding the Definition of Criminal Intent
In federal criminal cases, intent is an element of the government’s burden of proof. It reflects the defendant’s mental state at the time the alleged crime was committed. When intent is an element of the offense at issue, the defendant’s mental state at the time of the alleged crime is a centerpiece for determining whether a conviction and criminal sentencing are warranted.
The intent element of federal criminal statutes can focus on either the defendant’s action or the defendant’s desired outcome. For example, in healthcare fraud cases, the question is often whether the defendant intentionally over billed the federal government. Here, the focus is on the defendant’s action. In contrast, in federal murder cases, the question of intent relates to the outcome. Regardless of the defendant’s specific action, did the defendant intend to cause the victim’s death? Or, was the victim’s death an unintended consequence?
2. When Evidence of Intent is Required
It remains somewhat undecided whether the government has a burden to prove some form of a guilty mind for the violation of a criminal statute. Three U.S. Supreme Court cases are instructive. In Dixon v. United States, 548 U.S. 1 (2006), the U.S. Supreme Court declared again that the requirement of a guilty mind (“mens rea”) is for the legislator, and not the courts to decide. In Clark v. Arizona, 548 U.S. 735 (2006), the Court confirmed that state legislatures have broad authority to define and restrict the element of a guilty mind. See also Montana v. Egelhoff, 518 U.S. 37 (1996). Further, even though a guilty mind or a “bad” motive by itself does not make an act unlawful, the judge may consider someone’s motives at the time of sentencing. Bad motives (greed, hatred, racism) could warrant a higher punishment.
Many federal criminal statutes include elements of intent. For example the federal mail fraud statute, 18 U.S.C. Section 1341, provides that:
“Whoever, having devised or intending to devise any scheme or artifice to defraud . . . places in any post office or authorized depository for mail matter, any matter or thing whatever to be sent or delivered by the Postal Service . . . shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 20 years, or both.”
Similarly, 18 U.S.C. Section 1001, which prohibits making false statements to federal agents and officials, provides that:
“[W]hoever, in any matter within the jurisdiction of the executive, legislative, or judicial branch of the Government of the United States, knowingly and willfully . . . makes any materially false, fictitious, or fraudulent statement or representation . . . shall be fined under this title, imprisoned not more than 5 years or, if the offense involves international or domestic terrorism (as defined in section 2331), imprisoned not more than 8 years, or both.”
While 18 U.S.C. Section 1001 requires “willful” action rather than action undertaken with “intent,” the concepts of willfulness and intent are closely related in federal jurisprudence. When seeking to prove willfulness or intent, federal prosecutors will often use the same types of evidence (more on this below), and prosecutors may seek to use evidence of willful action to infer intent, or vice versa.
3. Timing is Important
When a federal criminal statute requires evidence of intent, timing is important – this is especially true in appeals cases. A defendant is not liable simply because he forms the intent to rob a bank. Intent must exist at the time of the commission of the crime. Intent must continue until the act is done. For example, if a defendant wants to poison a victim on Monday, but the victim does not consume the prepared poisoned drink until Tuesday, the defendant will still be liable for homicide even though the actual act occurred on Tuesday rather than on Monday because the once formed intent to kill continued until the actual commission of the crime (in this example until Tuesday).
What is the Difference Between Intent and Motive?
An important distinction lies between motive and intent. A person’s motive to commit a crime may be important to understand the story behind the crime, but a “bad” motive by itself is not punishable. Conversely, if someone steals to help the poor and arguably has a good heart and a “good” motive, the law still holds that person culpable for theft because stealing is unlawful— and the reasons and motives for the theft are irrelevant. A “good” motive thief commits a crime just like a “bad” motive thief.
What is the Difference Between Intent, Knowledge, and Recklessness?
Criminal law distinguishes between intent, knowledge, and recklessness. Within intent we must distinguish between intending the conduct and intending the result. For example, if a defendant is charged with the intentional killing of a person, a defense lawyer may still argue that the defendant may have pulled the trigger, but he may not ultimately be guilty of the offense of killing another person because in this example the defendant thought the gun was empty or because he did not intend the bullet to hit somebody, or because he acted in self-defense.
Some crimes require that the defendant committed the offense knowingly. When acting knowingly, the defendant need not intend a result, he only needs to know that the result is certain. By contrast, recklessness stands in between intent and criminal negligence and is typically defined as a conscious disregard of a risk of which the defendant was aware. Thus, the essence of recklessness is that the defendant knows injury is being risked but proceeds anyway.
How Does the Federal Government Prove Intent?
The three different types of criminal state of mind—intent, knowledge, and recklessness—require that the government prove the defendant’s actual mental state at the time of the alleged criminal offense. It is not always, or even often, easy for prosecutors to prove a defendant’s mental state in the past.
So how, then, can the government prove that a defendant had the requisite state of mind to warrant a criminal conviction? Almost always the answer is inference. The government infers from the defendant’s conduct and words, and also from the statements presented by witnesses who testify as to the defendant’s mental state at the time of the alleged crime.
In order not to merely speculate about the existence or non-existence of intent, the law requires that the jury be persuaded beyond a reasonable doubt. When relying on inference, this means that prosecutors must establish that an inference of the requisite mental state (i.e., intent) is a reasonable one to draw based on the evidence presented. In practice, a motive will bolster the prosecutor’s case (even though a motive is not necessarily indicative of intent) as motive allows the jury to infer intent.
Crucially, however, federal courts will interpret criminal statues—and their intent requirements specifically—narrowly in favor of the defendant in many cases. This narrow interpretation is justified based on the prosecution’s burden of proof and the fundamental principle of jurisprudence that defendants are innocent until proven guilty. If there are any reasonable questions regarding a defendant’s guilt—including any questions regarding the defendant’s state of mind—then a conviction is unwarranted.
How Can Federal Defendants Challenge the Government’s Evidence of Intent?
Since the government’s efforts to prove intent will often be based on inference, challenging the intent element of the government’s case is often a matter of calling the validity of this inference into question. Just because an inference of intent is possible, that does not mean that a criminal state of mind is the only possible conclusion. There could be many other explanations or justifications for the defendant’s conduct as well, and bringing these alternatives to the forefront can be a highly effective defense strategy in many cases.
Contact the Federal Criminal Defense Lawyers at Oberheiden P.C.
If you need to know more about defending against allegations of intent in a federal criminal case, we encourage you to contact us promptly for more information. To speak with a senior federal criminal defense lawyer at Oberheiden P.C. in confidence, call 888-680-1745 or contact us confidentially online now.