Updated: Jul 27
Crime: definition and elements
Crime denotes an unlawful act which is punishable by the State. However, in modern legal jurisprudence, there is no universally accepted definition of crime, but several statutory definitions have been provided.
The most popular view is that a crime or crimes is/are a category created by law. In other words, any such act or omission is considered to be a crime, if the same has been provided for by any relevant statute.
One proposed definition of Crime is that- Crime or Criminal Offence is an act which is not only dangerous but also dangerous/harmful to individuals but to the society, community, and the State as a whole. Such acts are forbidden and punishable by law.
According to Osborn, crime is "an act or default which tends to the Prejudice of the community, and forbidden law on pain of punishment inflicted at the suit of the State."
According to Black's Law Dictionary, "An Act that the makes punishable; the breach of a legal duty treated as the subject matter of a criminal proceeding."
Usually, for an act or omission to be categorized as a Crime, the following essential elements are necessary-
A natural or legal person i.e., A Human Being
The intention to do something illegal/criminal/wrongful i.e., Mens rea.
The act in furtherance of the guilty intention i.e., Actus reus
The injury that is caused to the body or property of a person.
ELEMENTS OF CRIME
Several jurists have agreed upon the following elements to be necessary to constitute a criminal act or liability-
1. HUMAN BEING
The first and most important element to the commission of a crime is a Human Being, i.e., the act must be committed by a human being.
In ancient or medieval times even, when concepts of criminal law were largely dominated by ideas of revenge and retribution, human beings aside, even animals or cattle were punished by the law for the harm or destruction, or loss caused to the body or property of another person.
However, modern criminal jurisprudence requires that the Act must be committed by a human being, who must be affected by, or be under a legal obligation to perform such an act and should be a fit subject for awarding appropriate punishment.
Section 11 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 provides the definition of Person, which includes- “any persons or body of persons or company or association, whether incorporated or not.” The word person in this context also includes artificial or juristic persons.
Therefore, to be able to receive punishment for a crime or criminal activity, it is necessary that a human being must have a body. Corporations and Artificial persons cannot be inflicted with physical punishments; for appropriate punishment implies both physical and pecuniary punishment and the former cannot be inflicted upon artificial persons.
2. MENS REA
A Latin phrase reads- “Actus non facit reum nisi mens sit rea”, which is a well-known saying in criminal jurisprudence. This maxim implies that “the act itself does not make a man guilty until his intentions were so.”
Another maxim connected to the maxim above which reads- “Actus me invito factus non est meus actus”, implies that any act committed by a person against his own will is not an act at all.
Therefore, the above 2 maxims delineate the concept that to be considered a criminal act, which is punishable by law, the act must be a willful act or a voluntary act and must be done with a guilty or criminal intent (guilty mind).
It was held in the case of FOWLER v. PADGET, that both the intent and the act must concur to constitute a crime.
However, it is also important to note that in HARDING v. PRICE, it was observed that where the criminal intent is necessary to constitute a crime, but the intent is absent, there is no criminal responsibility unless the offence is expressly or by necessary implication punishable without reference to the wrongdoer.
Criminal acts involving mens rea can be divided into 2 categories-
Crimes of basic intent
Crimes of specific intent
In a legal capacity, mens rea inherently means the mental element necessary for any crime, and this mental element may either be an immediate act or bring about any consequence or recklessness.
3. ACTUS REUS
Actus Reus, which was also termed a ‘physical event’ by RUSSEL is another constituent element of a criminal act. The actus reus or guilty act includes not only the physical act (deed) but also any result or consequence arising out of such act.
It is the physical result of human conduct. When criminal policy regards such conduct as sufficiently harmful to any individual or society, such conduct is prohibited and the criminal policy provides sanction or punishment or penalty for such conduct, or commission or omission of any act.
The actus reus has been defined by KENNY as “such result of human conduct that consists of acts of commission as well as acts of omission.”
The provisions of Section 32 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 are a testament to the fact that physical acts constituting a crime would also include such omissions which are prohibited by law, or, were required to be fulfilled by law, or performed under any legal obligation. It must also be noted that a person shall not be held liable unless it is proved that he was legally responsible for performing or committing an act, which he omitted.
Illustration: ‘A’, a husband, if allows his wife and children to die of starvation or disease, then ‘A’ commits a crime by omission, as he is legally bound to provide for and look after his wife and children.
The word “injury” as defined under Section 44 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 denotes- “any harm, whatever, illegally caused to any person, in body, mind, reputation or property.”
For a crime to be constituted, an injury must be illegally caused to another human being or the body of persons or society at large. However, there are also certain cases where a crime may be committed without causing any physical harm to the body or property of an individual.
Here examples can be given of- Defamation which relates to the reputation of an individual as covered under Section 499 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 and punishable under Section 500. Similarly, harassment under Indian Penal Code also includes mental harassment.