Criminal Procedure FAQ

How can I tell from reading a criminal statute whether I'm guilty of the crime it defines?

Criminal statutes define crimes in terms of required acts and a required state of mind, usually described as the actor's "intent." (To learn more about criminal intent, read Nolo's article How Defendants' Mental States Affect Their Responsibility for a Crime.) These requirements are known as the "elements" of the offense.

A prosecutor must convince a judge or jury that all of the elements of the crime have been satisfied -- meaning that the defendant did the acts and had the intent described in the statute.

For example, burglary is commonly defined as entering a building belonging to another person, with the intent to commit petty or grand theft (that is, to steal), or any felony. To convict a person of this offense, the prosecutor would have to prove three elements:

  • The defendant entered the structure.
  • The structure belonged to another person.
  • At the time the defendant entered the structure, he intended to commit petty or grand theft, or any felony.

Break the crime down into its required elements to see if each applies in your situation.

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