Understanding Intent in a NJ Criminal Case


The term “intent” in a criminal case is meant to describe what an accused person’s purpose is in committing certain acts or crime. In the majority of scenarios involving someone facing criminal charges in New Jersey, you cannot be found guilty without possessing the requisite mental state. Moreover, there are specific ways and forms of evidence that can be used to establish your intent when facing criminal charges. So, what is intent and what is the importance if you have been charged with a crime? Here you can gain a better understanding.

You Have Been Charged With a Crime in New Jersey. Does Your Intent Matter?

Intent is a simpler term for state of mind. In other words, what was your state of mind when you allegedly committed the offense? A crime cannot be committed without having the state of mind necessary in assigning guilt. Inapposite, accidents are just that: accidents. In a situation where something is accidental, it cannot be proven that you committed a criminal offense in most cases.

In the absence of charges that fall under the umbrella of strict liability offenses, criminal complaints can only be filed when a person is said to have acted purposely, knowingly, recklessly, or negligently under N.J.S.A. 2C:2-2. These are known as the General Requirements of Culpability.

Meaning of Crimes Committed Purposely, Knowingly, Recklessly, or Negligently

Each “intent” or mental element is different. A simple way of deciphering between them is to assign ordinary meaning to the words. If you are punched in the face, the jury would be asked, did he do it on purpose? Meaning, was it his intention to hit you in the face? In the case of knowingly, the slight difference is whether the person knew that you would be hurt by his conduct, although it was not his specific purpose.

Acting recklessly or negligently is not looked upon as harshly as someone who acts knowingly or recklessly because the person’s conduct can be viewed as motivated by ignorance or stupidity, not purpose. If you swung a bat knowing that someone was standing near you and was going to be hurt, but it was not your intention to harm them, your conduct was reckless. Your intent was not to inflict harm but you did by disregarding the risk that he could be injured.

Negligence is similar, except that a person who acts negligently is a person who just simply doesn’t recognize the risk at all. In the context of swinging a bat, if you swing it, just don’t notice a friend standing in front of you, and you connect with his head, you are said to have acted negligently. In the context of a case involving negligence, everyone else would readily spot the potential danger but because you did not, you are considered negligent.

How Prosecutors Prove Intent for Criminal Charges

Prosecutors routinely try to prove your intent or state of mind by bringing forth witnesses who testify as the circumstances surrounding the offense. Witnesses can testify about what they saw, heard, tasted, smelled, or touched. They can also testify about what you said, as you are the defendant and have the ability to testify about the falsity of their statement. Your attorney can also cross-examine them and attempt to demonstrate their lack of credibility or fundamental inconsistencies in their version of events.

This is just one of the numerous benefits of having an experienced criminal defense lawyer on your side when dealing with criminal charges. Perhaps the prosecutors assigned to your case attempt to incorporate impermissible testimony as to your intent in an attempt to put you behind bars. An experienced attorney can readily identify the utilization of discovery that should be inadmissible and further argue for its exclusion from the prosecution of your case.

For example, in drug cases in which you are accused of possessing controlled dangerous substances with the intention of distributing them, the state may attempt to use police officers to testify as to your intent. Nevertheless, this is impermissible, as your “intent” in committing a crime is not something that an officer can opine to or state. Determining your intent is a specific function of the jury, not a police officer. That being said, intent can be inferred by the attendant circumstances. Sometimes, proving intent is easier than one might think.

What Can and Cannot Be Used to Establish Intent in Court: Drug Case Example

In the context of drug charges, an officer often tries to testify about your intentions indirectly. If you have been charged with possession of heroin with intent to distribute, the state must prove that you possessed the drugs for the purpose or intention of selling or dispensing them to others. Often, the common lingo used in drug transactions, amounts in possession for personal use versus sale, and the attendant circumstances are used to show that you possessed the drugs to sell them. This comes into play when a police officer was present for the transaction in an undercover capacity and testifies as to what you said.

There is a fine line here in terms of what is allowed during your prosecution. Specifically, if the officer talks about the meaning of the words or how it fits into the overall situation, it should be prohibited. Giving an opinion as to your intent as an observational witness is not allowed during criminal proceedings that will ultimately determine your innocence or guilt. If an attorney is not careful, the officer may provide opinion testimony as both a lay witness and an expert. This is disallowed but it can be attempted. Criminal defense lawyers with trial experience can see this coming in advance and make objections to the judge, seeking to exclude the opinion testimony.

Nonetheless, the judge may still let in evidence pertaining to the amount and type of drugs that you allegedly possessed, what you said, how much money was on you at the time, and what else was found in conjunction with the controlled dangerous substances, such as a scale, baggies, money in cash, and more. These things taken together can be used to demonstrate to the jury that it was you should justifiably be convicted of intent to distribute cocainepossession of marijuana with intent to sellintent to distribute MDMA, or another drug distribution offense.

Finding Out How Intent Applies to Your Specific Criminal Offense in NJ

Knowing what form of intent is applicable to your criminal charge and what evidence can be used against you, is integral when making an educated decision about your case. These things should be looked at in totality when determining the best way to handle your defense. What can or cannot be excluded should be examined in advance by a skilled and knowledgeable criminal attorney who can then advise you as to your options, their recommendations, and what can be done to obtain the best outcome possible. When you and your lawyer make these decisions together with criminal legal background and experience to back it up, you can move forward with confidence any time you are headed to court and all parties can plan accordingly.

Our criminal defense lawyers in Hudson County, NJ, concentrate our practice on this area of law and have accumulated a wealth of knowledge and practical experience throughout our careers. We will walk you through your case and answer all your questions, and if you enlist our help in your defense, will work diligently to deliver the most favorable results. Our attorneys are here to provide you with a free criminal defense consultation whenever you have the need. All you have to do is call our local Jersey City office at (201) 793-8018 or send us a message to get started.

With more than a decade of experience defending clients against criminal charges, founding partner William A. Proetta has successfully handled and tried thousands of cases, from DWI to murder. As a New Jersey native, he has focused his career on helping people in the area where he grew up, serving Middlesex, Ocean, Hudson, and Union counties.