Last Updated: January 5, 2024

General Intent or Specific Intent in Utah Criminal Cases

The terms “general intent” and “specific intent” are used commonly in discussing the mens rea (mental state) elements of various crimes. The terminology has a long history in American courts and English common law can be useful in informal discussions. As a defense attorney, keep in mind that Utah law…

The terms “general intent” and “specific intent” are used commonly in discussing the mens rea (mental state) elements of various crimes. The terminology has a long history in American courts and English common law can be useful in informal discussions. As a defense attorney, keep in mind that Utah law no longer makes use of this particular distinction.

Traditional Legal Standards

Under traditional definitions, a “general intent” crime was one in which the only required mental state was the intent to commit the act. For example, the elements of a misdemeanor trespass charge could be met with evidence that a person willfully entered property belonging to another without permission to do so. Accidental entry (e.g., tripping and falling or being pushed over a property line) might not constitute trespass. But if the person entered the property as a result of volitional conduct, the intent element of a trespass charge could be met.

Burglary is often cited as an example of a “specific intent” crime, involving the elements of a trespass (entering or remaining unlawfully on property belonging to another), bust also with an additional intent element. Specifically, a conviction for burglary requires evidence that the person had the intent to commit a theft, assault, or other felony crime while entering or remaining unlawfully on the property.

The United States Supreme Court’s Perspective

The United States Supreme Court has observed. “At common law, crimes generally were classified as requiring either ‘general intent’ or ‘specific intent.’ This venerable distinction, however, has been the source of a good deal of confusion.” United States v. Bailey, 444 US 394, 403 (1980). After describing various different and conflicting ways in which the terms have been used, the Court noted,

“This ambiguity has led to a movement away from the traditional dichotomy of intent and toward an alternative analysis of mens rea… [in which] the ambiguous and elastic term ‘intent’ is replaced with a hierarchy of culpable states of mind… commonly identified, in descending order of culpability, as purpose, knowledge, recklessness, and negligence.”

Id. at 403-404 (citations omitted).

Utah’s Mens Rea Rule – Utah Code 76-2-101

While the terms are still commonly used, “Utah’s criminal code no longer applies the labels of specific intent and general intent.” State vi Hutchings, 2012 UT 50, ¶14 n.3. Instead, Utah’s criminal code provides that, except for strict liability offenses, criminal responsibility attaches only when “the person acts intentionally, knowingly, recklessly, with criminal negligence, or with a mental state otherwise specified in the statute defining the offense.”  Utah Code §76-2-101(1) (emphasis added).

Originally Published: January 5, 2024

Related Articles

Attorney Brad Henderson
Bradley Henderson – As a decorated military veteran, his experience as a United States Air Force JAG officer has given Bradley Henderson a breadth...
June 6, 2024
Utah Appellate Rule Updates – 11 & 22
The Utah Supreme Court has approved certain revisions to Rule 11 and Rule 22 of the Utah Rules of Appellate Procedure. The amendments affect the...
February 23, 2024
Interlocutory Appeals in Utah Criminal Cases
An interlocutory appeal is one that is filed prior to a final judgment is entered. In most criminal cases, this will mean filing a petition for...
January 23, 2024

Ready to explore our other articles?