Criminal cases are some of the most straightforward cases. These cases normally involve physical assault, sexual assault, murder, and theft. A regular individual could easily recognize the criminal activities of the defendant. A plaintiff will charge the defendant with murder if the latter committed the action. A woman can charge their assailant with rape and provide evidence of the fact. However, there are also criminal cases where the actions of the defendant are the result of negligence or omission.
These subjects can be complex since a judge or jury will need to extensively assess the details of the case. They will have to determine if actus reus applies to the supposed crime. This essay will discuss the definition of actus reus and how it applies to various criminal law topics. The essay will provide example criminal cases where the law applied actus reus whether through direct action or omission. It will go into detail about how previous criminal cases approached the subject and the scope of its requirements.
What is Actus Reus?
Actus reus refers to the criminal act that a defendant performed. The act can be a direct physical movement, such as stealing an object or killing a person. This movement must be a voluntary act, such as punching, grabbing, or shooting a gun. Generally, the law acquits individuals who caused damages due to fortuitous events. Actus reus can also be through omission. This is when an individual neglects to perform a legal act. The law requires an individual to perform a legal action to safeguard the well-being of another person. This can be due to a contract, relationship status, or assumption of an emergency. (Actus Reus, n.d.). An example of a duty to act is the Good Samaritan Act, RSBC, ch. 172 (1996) which allows a person to aid in an emergency without being liable for any damages or death that their action may cause.
Actus reus is only one of the two elements of a criminal act. While actus reus refers to the criminal act itself, mens rea refers to the intention of the criminal (Mens Rea, n.d.). The law requires an individual to possess the knowledge that they have committed an offense. This is where the idea of faking a stable mental state to avoid a jail sentence came from. An example of this is the US v. Vincent Gigante case. The government charged Vincent Gigante with murder, labor racketeering, and extortion. United States v. Gigante, 166 F.3d 75 (2d Cir. 1999). During the trials, four psychiatrists reported that Vincent Gigante was mentally incompetent. This allowed him to commit crimes without repercussions. However, some of the judges believed that Gigante was malingering. United States V. Gigante, 925 F. Supp. 967, 968 (E.D.N.Y. 1996). The court later concluded that Gigante was indeed malingering which resulted in the continuation of the trial. Gigante, 166 F.3d at 75.
Actus Reus through Active Actions
The first form of actus reus is voluntary physical movement. Actus reus requires the defendant to voluntarily commit the crime. Some criminal acts that fall under this form are theft, first-degree murder, and direct assault. An example of this is the Powell v. Texas case. The case revolved around the premise that Powell was in a public space while in a state of alcohol intoxication. Powell v. Texas, 392 U.S. 514 (1968). This was a direct violation of the Texas Penal Code, Art. 477 (1952) which states that authorities can sentence a fine to individuals that are in a state of intoxication in a public space. Powell fell under the requirements of actus reus since he actively visited a public space. The act was enough for a court to convict him under the Texas Penal Code.
Another example is the United States v. Rodriguez-Moreno case. Rodriguez-Moreno along with other individuals held Ephrain Avenado captive as they drove from Texas to Maryland. United States v. Rodriguez-Moreno, 526 U.S. 275 (1999). Ephrain Avenado was able to escape and called the police that arrested his captors. The court convicted Rodriguez-Moreno for kidnapping and violating the Gun Control Act, 18 U.S.C.§ 924(c)(I) (1968) which refers to the use of firearms in criminal activities. The defendant’s actions clearly fit the requirements of actus reus. He voluntarily kidnapped and took captive another individual along with the intent to harm.
Actus reus through active criminal actions is easy to apply in most criminal cases. As long as the crime involves a defendant attacking or harming another individual the act will fall under the requirements of actus reus. While some aspects of the Powell v. Texas and U.S. v. Rodriguez-Moreno cases seem complex, the defendants’ criminal actions led to their convictions. Individuals can apply actus reus in straightforward cases involving theft, murder, and assault.
Actus Reus through Omission
Aside from an active criminal action, actus reus also applies to negligence. Law practitioners refer to this as “omission”. Through omission, an individual can commit a crime despite not doing any physical activity. However, this does not mean that authorities can legally arrest someone for an omission. In general, individuals have a duty to act when a possibility of harm may befall another individual. There are statutes like the Good Samaritan Act that protect an individual from any liability during an emergency. An individual may sign a binding contract that gives them a duty to act. These rules protect the safety of citizens and provide a clearer basis for actus reus.
The R v. Gibbons & Proctor case provides a good example of omission. The case was about the murder of the defendants’ 7-year-old daughter. A court found Gibbons and Proctor guilty of the murder due to omission. R v. Gibbons & Proctor, 13 CR App Rep 124 (1918). The law obligates parents and guardians to take care of their children. Parents have a duty to provide for the physical, emotional, and educational needs of their children. Children Act, c. 41 sec. 1 (1989). Gibbons provided Proctor with enough money to feed and take care of their daughter. However, Proctor neglected the needs of the child which was a form of child abuse that led to her death. Gibbons was aware of this but chose to not do anything. Gibbons & Proctor, 13 CR App Rep 124. This neglect is a perfect example of actus reus through omission. Both defendants were aware that neglecting the child’s needs will lead to her death. The court convicted Gibbon & Proctor of murder for letting their daughter die through omission. Gibbons & Proctor, 13 CR App Rep 124. Their choice of inaction was a criminal act since they failed their duty to act as parents.
Another example of omission is the Tamaitirua Kaitamaki v. The Queen case. The case revolved around the defendant’s crime of rape. The defendant entered a house where he raped a young woman twice. Tamaitirua Kaitamaki v. The Queen, UKPC 15 (1984). The defendant argued that the young woman gave him consent. However, he also stated that during the second attempt, he noticed that the woman was not consenting. Despite this, the defendant continued with the act and neglected the fact of the woman’s non-consent. Kaitamaki, UKPC at 15. The court found the defendant to be guilty of the crime of rape. The defendant attempted to argue that he believed that his victim gave consent. However, when he realized that the woman was not giving consent, he neglected the fact and continued with the crime. His omission was a criminal act since rape is nonconsensual intercourse.
Actus reus through omission can be a complex idea to prove in court. Judges and jury will have to look for mens rea to provide an educated judgment towards a defendant. There are more cases that deal with omission, such as failing to control an animal. The animal may attack and harm other individuals which can result in a criminal case. Even selling illegal substances that can result in drug abuse and other medical issues may fall under omission. Omission allows the law to punish negligence that can cause harm to individuals or other entities. Without it, courts will not be able to punish certain crimes that root from neglect.
Actus reus is any action or inaction that can result in a criminal offense. Along with mens rea, law practitioners use it to assess if a defendant is guilty of a crime. An individual can fall under actus reus through direct active action or omission. A court must prove that a defendant has actus reus to convict them of a crime. There are various scenarios where actus reus applies to criminal cases. It can be through staying in an area, using dangerous devices, avoiding parental responsibility, and neglecting someone’s consent. Actus reus applies as long as the defendant performs a voluntary action or neglect that results in another party’s harm.
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(n.d.). Actus Reus. Cornell Law School. https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/actus_reus
Children Act, c. 41 sec. 1 (1989)
Good Samaritan Act, RSBC, ch. 172 (1996)
Gun Control Act, 18 U.S.C.§ 924(c)(I) (1968)
(n.d.) Mens Rea. Cornell Law School. https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/mens_rea
Powell v. Texas, 392 U.S. 514 (1968)
R v. Gibbons & Proctor, 13 CR App Rep 124 (1918)
Tamaitirua Kaitamaki v. The Queen, UKPC 15 (1984)
Texas Penal Code, Art. 477 (1952)
United States v. Gigante, 166 F.3d 75 (2d Cir. 1999)
United States V. Gigante, 925 F. Supp. 967, 968 (E.D.N.Y. 1996).