What is the Difference Between Motive and Intent?

Categories : Criminal Law
March 25, 2020

While motive and intent are often mentioned together, they represent two distinct aspects of a criminal case. To prove guilt, prosecutors must establish intent. At the same time, judges often look to the motive when making their decisions.

At the core, the difference between motive and intent comes down to the state of mind of the accused. A motivation to act is, by itself, not a crime. Committing an act with criminal intent generally is.

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What Is Motive in Criminal Defense?

In a criminal case, a motive is an explanation. Investigators, prosecutors, judges and the public use motive to explain a person’s actions. Motives can be good or bad and may not always be present. A motive comes down to the reasons for making a decision or refusal to act. Even if the prosecution proves that a motive exists, they must still prove criminal intent to pass a guilty verdict.

Motives are:

  • The reason behind the action
  • Not always present in a case
  • Irrelevant in proving guilt

Motive comes before intent. It’s often referred to as the underlying cause behind the intent to act. Uncovering motives can determine the reasons for committing the act. Motives are often used by investigators when narrowing their list of suspects. A motive has perhaps the greatest effect on a case during sentencing. Motives can often influence a judge’s opinion to lean toward the maximum or minimum sentencing guidelines.

What Is Intent in Criminal Defense?

Regardless of motive, proving intent is the driving force behind surmising guilt. Even if a crime has been committed, the accused may eventually be found not guilty due to a lack of intent. Intent can be described as a willingness to act, and it makes all the difference in a criminal case. Intent can be divided into three levels of culpability, based on increasing severity:

  • General intent: Crimes of general intent carry the lightest criminal penalties but are the easiest for the prosecution to prove. Prosecutors only need to prove the presence of a general intention during the act in question.
  • Specific intent: Specific intent takes a closer look at the details of the crime. Specific intent alleges the accused knew the act was illegal beforehand or intended to cause a “bad result,” such as committing a crime resulting in bodily injury.
  • Malice aforethought: Applicable only in murder cases, malice aforethought describes the specific intention to kill. In both first-degree and second-degree murder cases, malice aforethought is a pivotal component of a trial.

Intent is the difference between trying to avoid a car collision versus aiming for the center and hitting the gas. The intent describes a conscious decision to carry out a criminal act. If you stood to gain monetarily by causing the car accident, you would also have a motive for doing so.

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If you’ve been accused of a crime in Pennsylvania, contact the criminal defense attorneys at MPL Law Firm. We focus on straightforward criminal defense aimed at preserving your personal life and professional integrity. Schedule a consultation today or call 717-845-1524.

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