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Why is Intent so Important in White Collar Crime Cases?

Posted by Ann Fitz | Aug 22, 2019 | 0 Comments

Criminal Intent is Hard to Prove

There are two essential elements that prosecutors in every criminal case must prove beyond a reasonable doubt: the criminal act (known as the actus reus) and the criminal intent (known as the mens rea).

Criminal acts are typically defined by statute and can be proven by direct or circumstantial evidence. But even if criminal acts can be proven, there can be no conviction when you don't have the requisite criminal intent. Prosecutors generally have an easy time proving the “what happened” of a case, but the same cannot be said of proving criminal intent.

Intent plays a central role in white collar criminal prosecutions. In fact, it is usually a key element of the charged white collar offense – whether it is conspiracy, mail fraud, wire fraud, securities fraud, health care fraud, falsifying books and records, insider trading, money laundering, or racketeering. Since charges related to white collar crimes do not require proof that you acted with force or threats of violence, prosecutors rely on proving your liability through criminal intent.

The intent to commit white collar crimes that must be proven by the government is generally that the act was committed in order to obtain money, property, services, or some personal benefit or business advantage. Criminal intent for white collar crimes can also stem from the fear of losing money or covering illegal acts up to escape criminal liability.

If there is a legitimate reason that can be proven in your defense for why the criminal act was committed, thereby negating mens rea, no crime has been committed.

The Burden is on the Prosecution to Prove Intent Beyond a Reasonable Doubt

In order to be found guilty of a white collar crime, prosecutors must prove that you intended or attempted to:

  • commit a crime;
  • conceal a crime; or
  • commit an act “in furtherance of” a crime;

with one of the following states of mind:

  • acting purposely – the defendant had an underlying conscious object to act;
  • acting knowingly – the defendant is practically certain that the conduct will cause a particular result;
  • acting recklessly – The defendant consciously disregarded a substantial and unjustified risk; or,
  • acting negligently – The defendant was not aware of the risk, but should have been aware of the risk.

Sound complicated? It is, which is why legislation has been introduced to clarify the mens rea requirement for federal crimes. The legislation stalled in congress, probably because, as the New York Times reported in November 2015, the”Legislation introduced in the House and Senate to change what the government must prove for some white-collar crimes, especially those involving corporate executives, could end up making it harder to obtain convictions.”

But the underlying legal concept in white collar criminal cases remains that these charges are beatable when you have a competent federal defense attorney who knows how to negate mens rea.

Many legitimate business people often unintentionally engage in criminal activity and their cases should be dismissed.

If there is insufficient evidence to prove that you intended to commit a white collar crime, there is a good chance that the government will be forced to dismiss the case against you or that you should fight the charge in front of a jury.

About the Author

Ann Fitz

Attorney Ann Fitz Attorney Ann Fitz has 20 years of experience as a federal criminal attorney and appellate practice attorney.  She began her career as a prosecutor in 2003 and started her own federal criminal defense practice in 2007.  She is devoted to protecting the rights of the accused in f...


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