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US Criminal Law/Actus reus

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Actus reus

Actus Reus (Latin for "guilty act") is the physical aspect of the crime. It can be an act or a failure to act where the person is required to act (e.g. a parent failing to protect their child). For example, the actus reus of battery is the physical contact between the assailant and victim (except that simple battery (without intent to do a further crime) is a tort, not a crime, and should not be confused).

Another example would be theft. The crime of theft requires physically taking something away (the actus reus) along with the intent to deprive the owner of the property indefinitely (the mens rea).

Q. Which of the following aspect of actus reus is not required?

  1. causation
  2. voluntariness
  3. intention
  4. physical capability

Q. Which of the following could potentially constitute an actus reus?

  1. Uploading spyware in order to harm your friend's computer
  2. Hurting someone in the dream
  3. An assassin with a plan to kill someone but failed to act on the plan

Some special "act" such as possession can be actus reus. For example, possession of drugs is a serious crime in many countries around the world. If possession is deemed a crime, the act of possession always is conscious possession - you need to be aware of the fact that there is cocaine in your bag. So here comes the "voluntary" aspect. An act cannot satisfy the actus reus requirement unless it is voluntary.

Q. Does an act of reflex or convulsion give rise to criminal liability?

No. (It is not voluntary.)

Q. Does an act performed during a state of unconsciousness meet the actus reus requirement?

No. (It is not voluntary.)

Q. How about acts performed under hypnosis?

The court is split about this issue. The Model Penal Code considers conduct under hypnosis as involuntary. For example: Mike Bookie, while taking the Criminal Law final exam, is stricken by epileptic convulsions and strikes John Wikie in the face. Since he did not hit John voluntarily, he does not have criminal liability.

Some acts are not actus reus because they are not physical.

Thoughts, words, possession and status

We cannot punish someone for mere thoughts of doing something harmful. For instance, I write here, "I intend to burn all the WikiBooks." This does not constitute arson nor any crime.


Two main types of causation exist, therefore two tests are applied:

  1. Was the criminal act foreseeable?
  2. But for the act of someone else, the criminal act would not have occurred.