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Acta Exteriora Indicant Interiora Secreta

Jamison KoehlerLegal Concepts/Principles

Today’s legal maxim is not particularly eloquent, in either Latin (acta exteriora indicant interiora secreta) or English (“outward acts indicate the thoughts hidden within”). But I include it today because it deals with intent, which is a key concept in criminal law.

Men rea (or “state of mind”) is an element of most criminal offenses. And since the finder of fact is not a mind-reader, the judge or jury is frequently required to infer intent from the defendant’s actions. This is where the maxim comes in. It is similar to the proposition that you are presumed to intend the natural and probable consequences of your actions.

Wayne LaFave uses the example of Person A firing a gun in the direction of Person B.  If the bullet kills B, A is presumed to have intended to kill B if the circumstances are such that B’s death is “natural and probable.”

In order to prove “general intent,” the government would need to show that Person A intended to fire the gun. In other words, did he intend to take the gun and pull the trigger?  “Specific intent” would require that Person A intended to actually wound or kill Person B. Alternatively, you could replace the general intent/specific intent dichotomy with the concepts of negligence. For example, did Person A act knowingly, intentionally, recklessly, or negligently?