In law school and in preparing for the Bar Exam, we were taught the distinction between general intent and specific intent crimes. If it is a general intent offense, the government must prove only that the defendant intended to take the physical action that resulted in the harm; that is, that the defendant’s actions were not the result of a mistake or accident.
Specific intent offenses, by contrast, require proof that the defendant intended to accomplish the precise criminal act that he or she was later charged with. In order to convict someone of destruction of property, for example, the government must prove that the defendant acted “maliciously.”
Although the distinction is overly simplistic, we were told, knowing it will serve you well on the bar exam. BARBRI thus had us memorize two lists of offenses, one for general intent crimes and the other for specific intent crimes.
As it turns out, both parts of this advice proved true. The bar examiners did test our ability — exhaustively — to distinguish between general and specific intent crimes. And the dichotomy is in fact both simplistic and potentially misleading.
Attempted battery assault in D.C., for example, has often been described as a general intent offense. The problem with this approach was demonstrated in Antwan Williams v. United States, 887 A.2d 1000 (D.C. 2005). In that case, the defendant was accused of throwing a shoe at a police officer. If attempted battery assault was a general intent offense, as it and other forms of assault have been described in previous holdings, the mere throwing of the shoe would have required a guilty verdict whether or not the defendant had any intention of throwing it at the police officer. “Under the judge’s stated view,” the Court held, “[the defendant] would be guilty even if he was aiming at the floor, or the wall, or the waste paper basket . . . , and accidentally struck the complainant.”
The “muddled” state of D.C. case law on this issue was described in Judge Ruiz’ concurring opinion to Antwan Buchanan v. United States, 32 A.3d 990 (D.C. 2011). With a fact pattern similar to that in Williams, police officers were attempting to subdue a suspect who was lying on the floor, “balling himself up,” “rolling onto his stomach,” and “flailing his elbows” to avoid handcuffing. At some point during the altercation, the suspect struck one of the police officers.
The court remanded the case to the trial judge with instructions to clarify its holding. If the lower court found that the defendant was struggling and flailing his arms with intent to use force against the officer, this would satisfy the requirement of specific intent and the conviction should stand. If, however, the court found that the striking of the officer was accidental, the result of the defendant’s attempt to keep his arms apart and make his body unamenable to handcuffing, then the court must reverse the guilty verdict.
Noting that we should be moving away from the “traditional dichotomy of intent” toward an alternative analysis of men reas, such as the Model Penal Code’s use of the “purpose” and “knowledge,” Judge Ruiz wrote in the concurring opinion:
What is clear from our opinions is that despite our description of assault as a general intent crime, where evidence of the defendant’s intent to inflict injury was close, we have in practice required more than the “mere intent to perform the acts which constitute the assault. There is no opportunity better than the present to reiterate the dubious value of rote incantations of the traditional labels of “general” and “specific” intent to the different mens rea elements of a wide array of criminal offenses. (Internal citations omitted.)
In the meantime, attempted battery assault is a specific intent offense.