What are the Elements of a Crime?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

The elements of a crime are a series of components which must be present in order for it to be demonstrated that someone is guilty of a crime. The prosecution must provide supporting evidence to demonstrate that all of the parts of a crime are present in a given case and the defense can challenge the validity of a case on one or more elements. Different legal systems have different standards and some truly bizarre cases have arisen to test the legal definition of the elements of a crime.

Causation is present when someone intends to break into a vehicle and does so.
Causation is present when someone intends to break into a vehicle and does so.

Four key components must be present: intent, conduct, concurrence, and causation. Without one of these elements, a case can start to fall apart. This fact explains why sometimes the defense will freely admit to something which seems incriminating, only to still win the case; it accepts that one element was present, but denies other elements of a crime and uses these to deconstruct the prosecution's case.

Pre-meditation is when a crime is planned out ahead of being enacted.
Pre-meditation is when a crime is planned out ahead of being enacted.

Intent, also known as mens rea or “guilty mind,” requires someone to intend to commit a crime, and to have the mental capacity to have intent. For example, someone who plans to commit a robbery clearly meets the condition of intent. If the robber hits and kills a pedestrian with the car on the way to the robbery, however, the robber cannot be charged with murder because he or she did not intend to kill the pedestrian. The pedestrian is still dead, of course, and the robber will be liable for manslaughter.

The act of firing a gun reveals intention but not causation.
The act of firing a gun reveals intention but not causation.

Conduct refers to actions taken on the part of the accused. To borrow our robber example again, someone can intend to commit a robbery but never actually do it, in which case the robber is not guilty because no conduct occurred. Concurrence requires a connection to be present between intent and conduct. While concurrence is often defined as “at the same time,” it is recognized that sometimes intent and conduct can occur at different points in time and someone can still be guilty.

Finally, the elements of a crime include causation, that the intent and conduct of the accused led to the crime. Someone can intend to commit a crime and engage in criminal conduct, but not actually commit the crime at issue in the court. For instance, if an assassin fires a gun and misses, intent and conduct are present, but causation is not. If the would-be victim later drops dead, the assassin's bullet was not the cause.

A person who accidentally kills another, such as during a car accident, is liable for manslaughter.
A person who accidentally kills another, such as during a car accident, is liable for manslaughter.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


The elements of crime are well explained in this article, but I still need know understand how many elements of crime are there. Some law teachers say there are only two elements (mens rea and actus rea) of crime when others are saying there are four elements of crime as stated in the article. Please help to understand before I start my criminal law exams in few days.


What about applicability of the code (statute, etc.)?

Although it wouldn't seem to apply in a tort (actual damage to the plaintiff), it would seem to apply in, for instance, a traffic case, or allegations of a taxing 'authority', wouldn't it?

Many people are sitting in jail for the 'crime' of 'tax evasion.' I wonder if any of them asked for evidence of how the code applies, and witnesses with first-hand (personal) knowledge of how the code applies.

Just curious, thanks.


@anon148195-- Do you mean the jurisdiction of court?

I don't think that's a part of the elements of crime. I'm not sure.


@literally45-- I think that goes back to mens rea. If the accused didn't have the intention to commit a crime, that means the accused has an excuse. Like the example the article gave about accidentally killing a pedestrian. The accused cannot be prosecuted for murder because the intent is clearly missing.

Another example could be someone killing someone as a result of self-defense. Several elements of crime is missing here. The accused hasn't planned the crime, there is no state of mind. And the accused has a justification which is self-defense.


My instructor explained elements of a crime differently in class.

He said that first, there has to be a law prohibiting a certain act. Then, that person must have committed that act and that too with a state of mind. Finally, there has to be no justification for that act.

I don't quite understand how this works. For example, if an act is prohibited, why does it matter if someone has a justification or not?


1.Harm; 2.Legality; 3.Actus reus; 4.Mens rea; 5.Causation; 6.Concurrence; 7.Punishment.

All seven elements must technically be present for a crime to have occurred.


What happened to jurisdiction?


A lot of crime shows will talk about these elements of a crime, though often in a sort of abbreviated and dramatized manner. Things like evidence or intent will be exaggerated, while things like causation and concurrence will be ignored. That's why these shows grip people, despite their lack of logic most of the time- they make courtrooms seem like extremely thrilling places, when really most court cases are very dull to watch, even murder cases.


What a great article. I have never really understood how the court process works in criminal court and this article gave a short and accurate presentation of what constitutes a crime, and how a crime is prosecuted. I never knew the elements of a crime until I read this article.

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