The purpose of this outline is to give the bare bones of criminal law. No cases will be included, only summarized principles and definitions.

This semester can really be broken down into two categories.

  1. An overview of criminal law
  2. Application of that overview
    • Large Crimes
    • Inchoate Offenses
    • Defenses

So what is involved in each of these categories (that we discussed this semester?


  1. Describing Criminal law
  2. Punishment Justifications
  3. Legality
  4. Statutory Interpretation
  5. Actus Reus
  6. Mens Rea
  7. Causation

Nearly all of the above should be talked about in a final exam essay question in order to obtain the maximum amount of points. If you were to preference any portion forces on the justifications for punishment, actus reus, mens rea, and causation. The other categories can be used to supplement the question where applicable.

Describing Criminal Law

  1. Given commands
  2. Commands bind subjects
  3. Subjects have consequences for disobedience
  4. Community condemnation
  5. Not a threat, but punishment enforced

Justifications for punishment


Looking forward

  1. General deterence
  2. Specific deterrence
  3. Restrict
  4. Reform

Looking back

Punish somebody because they did something wrong and for no other reason.


For a statute to be legal it needs to be

  1. Understood
    • Fair notice
  2. Clear
  3. Lenity – “Tie goes to the defendant”

Statutory Interpretation

  1. Plain Language
    1. Dictionary
  2. Legislative Intent
    1. Legislative history
    2. Purpose of the statute
    3. Examine previous statutes
    4. Previous common law

Actus Reus

The “act” of the crime. Committing and feeling the crime.


A person’s actions must be voluntary to be convicted of a crime.

Examples of involuntary response (defense to the crime) include:

  • Automatic response
  • Unconscious response
  • Hypnosis
  • Reflex or convulsion

A person may have a moral duty but not a legal duty to prevent a crime. The only exceptions to this rule is the following:

  1. Special relationships (spouses)
  2. Statute imposes a duty
  3. Contractual duty
  4. Voluntary duty (victim relies on your help)
  5. Your actions create a greater risk (hit and run)

Mens Rea

For a person to be convicted of the crime they need to have both committed the crime (actus reus) and have the moral culpability for that crime (mens rea).

Moral Culpability – Common Law

Mens Rea in the common law is expansive. Words include:

  • Malice
  • Willful
  • Wanton
  • Intent
  • Knowing
  • Reckless
  • Etc.
Moral Culpability – MPC
  • Purposeful
    • “Conscious object”
  • Knowing
    • “Consciously aware”
    • “Practically certain”
  • Reckless
    • “Conscious of risk”
    • Unreasonable actions
  • Negligent
    • “Should have known of risk”
    • Unreasonable actions
Transferred Intent
Common Law

A crime can be transferred from person to person or from property to property.


A crime can be transferred under the conditions of common law. Additionally, a crime can be transferred from worse crime to lesser crime (Intended crime against a person but actually committed a crime against a property).

Strict Liability

Strict liability only exists for minor violations (traffic offenses) or for public welfare violations (statutory rape).

Mistake of Fact – Defense

The actor was mistaken in a factual error of the crime (thought they were transporting legal pain medications but actually transported illegal drugs).

A person can use this defense if it negates the mens rea in the statute.

Mistake of Law – Defense

The actor was mistaken in a legal error of the crime (thought the law allowed an action but was mistaken).

Is not a defense unless:

  1. Actors actions were based on reasonable reliance from a legal authority (congressperson/judge)
  2. Actor was not given notice of the crime.
  3. The mistake negates a specific intent part of the crime (Purposeful or knowing).



“But-for” test

Substantial factor test


Is the chain broken by another party? Consider the following factors:

  1. De minimis contribution to the harm
  2. Intended-consequences doctrine (if the intention result occurred, even if it didn’t happen the way they expected)
  3. Omissions
  4. Foreseeability
  5. Apparent Safety
  6. Voluntary human intervention



Common Law Approach
  1. Murder
    1. First Degree
      1. Deliberate – Premeditated (Substantial time to cool)
    2. Second/Third degree
      1. Conscious Disregard (Reckless ++) (Unintentional)
      2. Felony-Murder Rule
  2. Manslaughter
    1. Provocation, Heat of the Moment, Passion
    2. Reckless or grossly negligent (Unintentional)
MPC Approach
  1. Murder
    1. Purposeful or Knowing
    2. Extreme indifference for human life (Reckless ++) (Unintentional)
  2. Manslaughter
    1. Would be a murder but the individual is 1. Extremely emotionally disturbed and 2. Has a reasonable excuse.
    2. Reckless (Unintentional)
  3. Negligent Homicide
    1. Should be aware of the action + gross deviation (Grossly negligent) (Unintentional)


MPC Approach


  • Force
  • Impaired the person’s power to control conduct (i.e. drugs, etc.)
  • Against unconscious
  • Less than 10 years old

Gross Sexual Imposition

  • Threat to prevent resistance of person with ordinary resolution
  • Knowledge of suffering from mental disease
  • He knows that she is unaware that he is not her husband (even if she believes that he is).
Common Law Approach

First Degree

  • Forceable compulsion
  • Against someone who is helpless or mentally incapacitated
  • Someone who is older than 16 against someone under 12

Second Degree

  • 16 or older against someone over 12, but not within two years of age.
  • Against someone who is mentally defective

Force traditionally has a resistance requirement but jurisdictions have altered that to find that force can include mental force or lack of consent is sufficient to find that force was met.

Mistake of fact can serve as a defense in very rare circumstances. For specific intent crimes, must negate element of the crime. For general intent, must be genuinely felt and reasonable.



  1. Necessity
  2. Proportionality

Common law:

  1. Threat of force
  2. Threat is imminent
  3. Reasonable belief of peril
  4. Response is proportional

Can be used only if the individual is not the aggressor.

Defense of others

Alter ego rule:

  • Traditional: Can only defend others if they have the right to self defense
  • Modern: Can defend others if there is a reasonable belief of the situation.
Defense of property

Can never be life threatening

Defense of habitation

The force must be necessary to prevent a violent felony within the home. The individual being guarded against could be outside the home attempting to enter.

  1. Prevent a significant evil
  2. There is no adequate alternative
  3. Harm caused is not disproportionate to the evil prevented
Civil Disobedience

Direct can have a necessity defense while indirect fails.


Under common law, necessity will never serve as a defense against murder while in the MPC, there is a possibility of the defense. Think trolley problem.


  1. Immediate threat of danger or serious bodily injury
  2. Well-grounded fear
  3. No opportunity to escape

Can’t punish under utilitarian theory: Can’t deter. Can’t punish under retributive: Not morally blameworthy.

Duress cannot be used as a complete defense against murder. Instead, duress can reduce murder from first to second degree.


Voluntary intoxication can serve as a defense to specific intent crimes only. Involuntary intoxication can be a defense to both specific and general intent crimes.

M’Naghten Test

At the time of the offense:

  1. The defendant has a disease in the mind so that:
  2. He did not know either
    1. The nature and quality of his acts
    2. If he did know the nature and quality, did not know his acts were wrong
MPC Test

A person is not liable for a mental disease or defect that causes a lack of substantial capacity to either

  1. Appreciate the [wrongfulness] of his conduct or
  2. To conform their conduct to the law.

Inchoate Offenses


Complete and incomplete attempt.

Mens rea: must have intent

Actus Reus: Must be in the last step or proximately close (dangerously close) to committing the crime. Under the MPC, there must be a substantial step (i.e. ambush, taking materials to the scene, etc.).


Factual – Never a defense. Missing the factual element necessary for committing the crime.

Pure Legal – Can be a defense. The law does not prohibit the defendant’s conduct.

Hybrid Legal – Only a defense in common law. The person has a goal to commit the crime, but there is some factual error that makes it impossible to meet an element of the crime.


Only applied to 5.01(1)(b) and (c) says that you can abandon the attempt as long as it is complete and voluntary.

Not Complete = If the defendant is motivated to only postpone the criminal conduct

Not Voluntary = If the person desists due to the probability of detection or apprehension which makes it more difficult to commit the crime.


  1. Have the purpose (conscious object) of committing a crime.
  2. Command, encourage, or request another person to engage in the conduct
  3. The conduct asked for must be either
    1. The crime
    2. Attempt to commit the crime
    3. Makes them an accomplice to the crime.

Under MPC 5.02(2) as long as the defendant had the intent and had made an act towards expressing that communication, he can be guilty.


Conspiracy is a duel intent crime:

  1. Intent to combine with others
  2. Intent to commit the crime

Pinkerton: Conspiracy can make all conspirators for all substantive crimes.

Mens Rea: Must have intent (can’t be guilty for unintentional crimes)

Actus Reus: Circumstantial evidence can be shown to find conspiracy. There is a difference between conspiracy (need to agree) and accomplice.



Give aid, acceptance, or encouragement with the intent to promote or facilitate the commission of the crime.


  1. Passive behavior is not enough, there must be some affirmative action
  2. Accomplice can only be convicted if the principle actually did a wrongful act
  3. If the principle is justified, then the accomplice is not guilty. If the principle is excused, the accomplice can be guilty if they do not have a defense.

Intent for the conduct to happen, but only needs the mens rea for the result. (i.e. Intentional to the conduct, reckless to the result).


The content contained in this article may contain inaccuracies and is not intended to reflect the opinions, views, beliefs, or practices of any academic professor or publication. Instead, this content is a reflection on the author’s understanding of the law and legal practices.

Will Laursen

Show Your Support


Table of Contents