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Heat of passion refers to a legal defense argument. A person uses it when she wants to argue that her actions were provoked and accompanied by intense feelings that caused her to lose control. Doing so may help reduce a person’s criminal charges or sentence.
Heat of passion is not used to dispute whether a person is responsible for actions. It is used to defend the state of mind that a person was in when those actions were committed. In a criminal case, it can be very important to determine a person’s state of mind.
When the law recognizes an action as a criminal offense, it usually is specifically defined. The definition of a crime commonly contains a number of circumstances that must all exist. These are known as elements. Premeditation is an element that is stated in the definition of many crimes.
Premeditation refers to thoughts, plans, and ideas that a person has of committing a crime before she does it. Heat of passion is used to dispute the fact that a person had intentions to commit the crime before she was in the situation where the crime was committed. It is also used to argue that a person’s actions were impulsive and that there were not any moments when she stopped to reflect on her decisions. Consider, for example, a case where a wife killed her husband when she entered a room and caught him engaged in adultery.
If the prosecution wants to convict the killer on first degree murder charges, it may be necessary to prove that the murder was premeditated. The accused may not deny that she killed her husband. She may deny, however, that she had ever considered doing it before the moment in which it happened. She may use the heat of passion defense to argue that her actions were fueled by shock and rage and that she was out of control.
Whether or not an act was premeditated is not the only thing to consider when arguing heat of passion. It must also be considered how reasonable a person’s mental state was. In order for this argument to be applied, generally, the circumstances must be such that another reasonable person, in a similar situation, would have reacted similarly. In the example above, the judge or jury would need to consider whether adultery could cause another wife of sound mind to lose control and kill her husband.
Since heat of passion explores a person’s mental state, there is generally no question about whether the accused committed an act. The defense is generally used for two purposes. In some cases, it can determine whether a person’s actions can be defined as a particular crime. For example, it can cause a murder charge to be reduced to manslaughter. In other cases, the appropriate crime has been named, but convincing a judge or jury that the guilty party acted out of heat of passion can lessen the sentence.