SOME LEGAL DEFINITIONS Legally, a crime is an act made punishable by law. A criminal is one who has committed such a legally forbidden act. Yet there are other criteria which determine whether a person may be dealt with as a criminal. 1. Regardless of his act, he must be of competent age. Under English common law a child under seven could not commit a crime because he was held not capable of feeling a sense of guilt - and so was not responsible. In American states the age of criminal responsibility is fixed by statute or constitutionally considerably above the common law limit. Very young children may of course be dealt with in juvenile courts. They may be punished as well as treated constructively under the faction that the court acts in loco parentis (as a parent would act) and in the best interests of the child. 2. Criminal acts must also be voluntary and engaged in without compulsion. Compulsion as defined by courts must be evident and immediately related to a particular criminal act. Impulsion towards a life of crime may have extended over a long period of time in the form of the influence of parents, associates, or conditions. But such indirect influences of the past, however compelling will not be recognized in court as destroying that voluntary nature of acts which is requisite to criminal behavior. 3. Especially in the case of serious crimes, the criminal must be shown to have had criminal intent: he must have meant to do wrong. Usually criminal intent is tested in terms of his knowledge of right and wrong and of the nature and consequences of his behavior. If it can be shown that a man who killed another did not know that it is wrong to kill or that death may result if one points a loaded gun at another and pulls the trigger, he will be judged irresponsible, being without mens rea. Though in the case of some sample crimes, like running a stop light, the question of intent will not be raised, intent must be present to constitute most serious crimes. A wrongful motive need not be shown. A motive is the reason for crime; it is the subjective aspect of the causation of crime. Bigamy is no less a crime when the accused is actuated by religious motives, and euthanasia, the killing at the request of or for the benefit of the killed, is murder. On the other hand, a man who, intending to make hog feed, produced illicit corn whiskey, was held not guilty of crime. 4. Our criminal law also often recognizes degree of intent as necessary to constitute particular crimes. Thus to carry a heavy penalty, an assault may have so be shown to have been perpetrated “maliciously” or “wantonly,” or a personal injury to have resulted from negligence. *
Donald R. Taft and Ralph W. England, Criminology 3-17 (1964).
5. Finally, to constitute a crime an act must be classed legally as an injury to the state and not merely as a private injury, or tort. In ancient societies many acts now defined as crimes were considered only private injuries to be avenged by the injured party or by his family or friends. But as society became more and more complex, a large number of acts once considered torts became crimes. It is indeed increasingly difficult to discover acts without general social consequences. We still have a vast number of injuries dealt with through private suit under the civil law, in which the court acts as the arbitrator between the contestants and awards damages. Some offenses may be tried either under the civil or the criminal law. We shall later discuss white-collar crimes, which is usually tried under civil procedure but may be tried as crime. In the United States, with its puritanical heritage, there has been a tendency to define as crimes many forms of personal behavior which on the European continent are rarely treated as crimes. That tendency has created the problem of unenforceable law and has set the stage for serious rackets created when satisfactions forbidden by law, such as gambling or...