What does it mean to act "knowingly"?

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The overwhelming majority of criminal offenses require a specified state of mind. To be guilty, the defendant must have had a particular mental state when acting.

Sometimes criminal statutes require that the defendant act “knowingly” or “with knowledge” of a particular fact or set of facts. What “knowledge” means may vary somewhat depending on the crime and the state involved. Below is a general discussion of knowledge, which has a close relation to concepts like willfulness and voluntariness.

Awareness of a Material Fact

In general, to act knowingly is to know what you are doing. Acting with knowledge often means being aware of a certain significant fact. Where this kind of knowledge is required, to be guilty of a crime, the defendant must have known or been aware of—or been aware of a high probability of—certain facts at the time of the offense.

For example, suppose Pam is on trial for theft. The relevant theft statute requires that the defendant know that the property she has taken belongs to someone else. That the property was someone else’s property is a material fact; awareness of it is necessary to a conviction. So, the prosecution must prove that Pam knew that the item she took was someone else’s.

Accident or Mistake

Requiring knowledge from the defendant is a way of distinguishing from instances of accident or mistake. Thus, if Pam can establish that she took the item in question—a backpack—in the belief that it was hers, then she’s not guilty. If she set her backpack down next to several other packs near the sink in a public restroom, and after washing her hands grabbed it without realizing it was the wrong one, she acted without the requisite knowledge.


Knowledge is at least in some sense distinct from intent. To act knowingly isn’t necessarily to intend a particular result. Suppose that the theft charge against Pam requires that she act knowingly and with a specific intent. The theft statute requires that the defendant:

  • know that the item in question isn’t hers, and
  • intend to permanently deprive the owner of it.

If Pam picked up the backpack knowing that it wasn’t hers, but intending only to borrow it so that she could show her travel companion the kind of bag she’s looking to buy, then she hasn’t violated the statute. (She may, however, have violated a different one. For more on theft crimes, see Petty Theft and Shoplifting Laws.)

Expert Explanation

The above is a general, limited discussion of the concept of knowledge in criminal law. Laws may vary from one place to another, and the concept of knowledge has lots of ins and outs, including as it relates to intent. If you have been charged with a crime or would like to know how the law applies to your unique circumstances, talk with a qualified criminal defense attorney. Only a knowledgeable lawyer can give you proper legal advice and help you chart your best course of legal action.

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