An experienced Alpine Utah criminal defense lawyer knows the importance of working together with the defendant. The account of events a defendant might tell spontaneously could omit these and other elements that are both accurate and helpful. This is why defendants and their attorneys have to work together to develop a version of events that will best benefit the defense.
Even assuming that you want to tell the truth, you should talk to an experienced criminal defense attorney before talking to the police. In part, this is because the police may accidentally or purposefully distort the suspect’s statement at trial. Moreover, many suspects are too nervous and unaware of the law to tell the police an accurate story that will also benefit their defense. Remember that there are many ways to accurately recount a series of events; suspects are almost always better off talking to an experienced Alpine Utah criminal defense lawyer before talking to the police.
To secure a conviction under a criminal statute, one element the government must prove is that the defendant performed a voluntary act that resulted in a social harm. The act must be voluntary because moral blameworthiness can be more accurately assessed when there is some degree of certainty that defendants have acted according to their own free will. Furthermore, if one of the goals of punishment is deterring unlawful conduct, then deterrence can be effective only to the extent that individuals make voluntary choices with respect to their conduct. Problems arise, however, when attempting to draw the line between voluntary and involuntary actions.
It is fair to say that the majority of actions are performed by individuals while in a conscious state and with full awareness of their actions. These actions are, by definition, voluntary. Therefore, the best approach for determining involuntary behavior is to focus on those actions that occur either in an unconscious state or without the actor’s prior awareness or control. Conduct performed during sudden seizures, blackouts or reflexes would likely fall into the category of involuntary conduct since such actions are not the result of the actor’s prior awareness or control and may even be surprising to the actor.
Closer cases arise when an individual has had repeated sleepwalking, seizure or blackout episodes. Under such circumstances, a strong argument may be made that these individuals are on notice that they could suddenly lapse into an unconscious state during which they might be incapable of controlling their conduct. To the extent that they fail to take steps to control the condition that leads to the involuntary conduct, then these individuals should be considered morally blameworthy for any resulting conduct.
For purposes of criminal law, the voluntary act can take many forms. It can be a physical act, such as pointing a gun or taking another person’s property. It can also be a verbal act, such as an agreement between two parties to commit a crime or making a false statement under oath. The voluntary act can also be a failure to act when there is a legal duty to act, such as failing to provide food or other necessities of life to one’s child. To impose liability for a failure to act, the law must first impose a duty upon the individual to affirmatively act under certain circumstances. The legal duty may arise by virtue of statute (parental duty to support a child) or special relationship (doctor/patient, lifeguard/swimmer). A legal duty arises in these relationships because of the inherent dependency of one person upon another for health, safety or protection.
To obtain a criminal conviction, in addition to proving a voluntary act, the prosecutor must prove that the defendant acted with an “evil mind” or a bad mental state at the time of the offense. Proof of the defendant’s mental state is necessary since the criminal law seeks to punish only those who are morally blameworthy. It is important to understand, however, that bad thoughts or evil intent alone are not sufficient to impose criminal liability. A person may fantasize about murdering his boss and may even reveal those fantasies to friends, but it is only when he begins to act upon those thoughts that the criminal law becomes relevant. Thus, the voluntary act and the mental state must both be present at the time the crime is committed.
Not surprisingly, the mental state is one of the most difficult elements of a crime to prove. This is because it requires an inquiry into a person’s thought processes, which can be easily disguised or misrepresented. Of course, the most direct method for determining a defendant’s mental state at the time of the offense is to simply ask the defendant. However, in most instances, unless making a confession, the defendant is unlikely to be the most reliable source. Additionally, defendants may elect to exercise their constitutional right to remain silent, thus barring the government from asking questions related to mental state or any other aspect of the crime. The primary method then for proving the defendant’s mental state is by the use of circumstantial evidence. If the prosecutor can prove that the defendant engaged in certain voluntary actions at the time of the crime, then it may be inferred that the defendant intended the natural and probable consequences of those actions. For example, a person who spreads gasoline throughout a building and then sets fire to the building probably intends to burn the building. Circumstantial evidence permits us to draw inferences as to the defendant’s mental state based upon solely that person’s conduct at the time of the offense.
A defendant acts purposely if it is his “conscious object” to engage in certain conduct set forth in the statute (the conduct element) or cause a certain result set forth in the statute (the result element). Here, the term “conscious object” means to act intentionally with a specific target or goal in mind.
A defendant may also act purposely if he acts with awareness that certain circumstances exist as set forth in the statute (the circumstance element).
A person acts knowingly if he is aware that his conduct is of a particular nature or aware that it is practically certain that his conduct will cause a particular result.
As a practical matter, the difference between purposely causing a death and knowingly causing a death is literally only a matter of degree. In the former instance, a defendant will likely be charged with first-degree murder, while the latter will probably yield a second-degree murder charge.
A person acts recklessly when he engages in conscious risk taking that causes a social harm. The risk of harm or death must be “substantial and unjustifiable,” and the defendant’s choice to proceed in light of the risk must constitute a “gross deviation” from the standard of conduct that a law-abiding person would observe under the circumstances.
Negligent conduct is unintentional risk taking. Liability for negligent conduct is based upon the defendant’s failure to perceive a substantial and unjustifiable risk that a reasonable person would have perceived under the circumstances. As in the context of reckless conduct, an initial determination must be made as to whether the risk is substantial and unjustifiable. If so, it must then be determined whether a reasonable person would have perceived the risk under the circumstances and presumably avoided liability by not engaging in the conduct. The defendant’s conduct is thus compared to the reasonable person under the circumstances.
Strict liability is a troublesome concept in criminal law because it allows for a criminal conviction without proof of the defendant’s mental state. If one of the purposes of criminal law is to punish those who are morally blameworthy, then how can the law allow punishment without specific proof that the defendant acted in a morally blameworthy manner? One rationale for strict liability offenses is that they allow the government to regulate conduct in areas where the public interest in such regulation outweighs the need to prove that the defendant acted with bad motive or intent. In the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution, the government sought to regulate economic and social conditions through the creation of a special class of economic crimes. By criminalizing inappropriate or unsafe business practices, the government demonstrated its willingness to shoulder the burdens of economic expansion. What this meant was that rather than forcing consumers to bring private civil actions for damages suffered as a result of business misconduct, the government prosecuted the responsible parties. To maximize the deterrent effect of these economics-based criminal offenses, many statutes imposed a standard of strict liability. This meant that the government did not have to prove that the defendant acted with any bad intent or mental state. Instead, it was sufficient for purposes of a conviction simply to show that the defendant engaged in the prohibited conduct. A fairly common example of a strict liability offense is speeding. After being stopped, many motorists attempt to explain why they did or did not intend to speed (e.g., late for an appointment, just following the flow of traffic) only to be met with a blank stare and usually a ticket from the officer.
The reason for the blank stare and the ticket is that speeding is a strict liability offense. Therefore, as long as there is proof that the motorist engaged in the conduct of exceeding the speed limit, that is sufficient for a conviction. Why is speeding a strict liability offense? The answer is twofold and related, in part, to the historical rationale for strict liability offenses. First, if the government were required to prove through the trial process that every motorist stopped for speeding did, in fact, intend to speed, there would be a tremendous backlog of minor traffic cases in the court system. Second, and perhaps more important, the government has determined that it is in the best interest of the public health and safety to punish those who violate speed limit laws in the most efficient and effective manner possible. The need to protect society from speeders outweighs any potential benefits that might accrue to individuals by requiring the government to prove the mental state in each and every speeding case. Again, in this instance, eliminating the need to prove intent is offset by a penalty structure that is usually limited to the payment of fines.
To impose criminal liability, it must be determined that, in addition to acting voluntarily with a bad mental state, the defendant both directly and legally caused the harmful result. There can be many direct causes of a harmful result. One method for determining whether a particular factor is a direct cause is to ask the question, “But for the occurrence of this particular factor, would the harmful result have happened when it did and how it did?” If the answer to this question is “no,” then one can identify that factor as a direct cause of the harmful result. This analysis is often referred to as the “but for” analysis of causation. Once the direct causes have been identified, the next step is to identify the legal cause or proximate cause. In criminal law, courts identify the legal cause by asking, “Which of the factors identified as direct causes is morally blameworthy and therefore deserving of punishment for causing the harmful result?” In most instances, the answer to this question will determine who should face criminal prosecution.
The causation determination is a two-step analysis: (1) The direct cause(s) of the harmful result must be identified by asking the “but for question. (2) Choosing from among the direct causes, the legal or proximate cause must be determined by asking who or what is morally blameworthy. When performing this analysis, two additional factors must also be considered.
First, a person may intend to cause harm in one manner and, in attempting to do so, may start a sequence of events that eventually causes harm, although not in the intended manner. Second, occasionally a person may set out to cause harm to one victim but instead causes harm to an innocent bystander.
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8833 S. Redwood Road, Suite C
West Jordan, Utah
84088 United States
Telephone: (801) 676-5506