I have a touching memory regarding criminal intent. My mother was getting milk for my two very young children. My son grabbed eagerly at the glass and dropped it on the kitchen floor. My mother began to scold him vehemently, as she had done with us. She meant well – this was how she had been trained and she was trying to make sure the grandchildren turned out decent. “How could you be so careless? Shame on you!”
I was in the next room, deciding whether to come into the kitchen, when I heard the equally vehement voice of my three-year-old daughter, coming to baby brother’s defense, more eloquently than I could have. So I just sat smiling to myself and listening. I could see my daughter through the door with her hands on her hips and a very serious face.
“Mormor! You cannot get mad at him for a mistake! It is an accident. That is our rule! You are not ALLOWED to get mad at someone for making a mistake! It’s OKAY to make a mistake. That is an accident!”
My mom repeated several versions of why my son was deserving at least of a good scolding. She talked about him spilling. You cannot just pour milk on the floor and expect to get away with it! What is the world coming to? Milk doesn’t grow on trees! It was a sort of a due caution argument, leaning toward negligence even. Would a more reasonable one-year-old in his position have exercised more caution and avoided the spill? Or was it, as his young defender argued, simply an accident with no malintent, and thus unpunishable?
My son quite wisely and precociously took the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution and said nary a word. As a young philosopher, he was fairly certain that a second glass of milk would eventually be forthcoming. He was mellow enough to wait it out, and let older and wiser people make the arguments for each side.
My mother explained at length the many reasons why my son was wrong to spill his milk. She even mentioned the societal consequences – what if everybody, she posited, went around spilling their milk and throwing food on the ground? What the heck would we eat then? We would all starve! It was the floodgate argument, so common in the courtroom. If we allow this, then all hell will break loose and our society will float off its underpinnings. Nothing less than anarchy will be the result.
My daughter simply repeated each time, firmly and without wavering: “We cannot get in trouble for an accident. That is our family rule!”
There was some muttering on my mother’s part, and my son had to sit at the table to receive his second glass, but in the end, Mom was unable to persuade her young audience that there had been criminal intent, and so she could not prevail against our family rule . You cannot get punished for doing something on accident.
This is not a rule I made up for the benefit of my children. It is actually the law. There are several levels of criminal intent. Accident is not one of them. The following is a basic summary, which will vary from state to state.
INTENT is when you act with the objective or purpose to accomplish a result which constitutes a crime:
You did it on purpose.
KNOWINGLY is when you are aware of facts or circumstances that result in a crime as defined by statute, or when you have information that would lead a reasonable person in the same situation to that conclusion:
You either knew, or you should have known.
RECKLESS is when you know of and disregard a substantial risk that a wrongful act may occur, when such disregard is unreasonable:
You knew there was a risk and didn’t care.
CRIMINAL NEGLIGENCE is when you fail to be aware of a substantial risk that a wrongful act may occur where it is unreasonable to be unaware:
You should have known there was a risk.
ACCIDENT is when an eager little fellow grabs at a glass of milk and it slips out of his hands. This, my friends, is not a crime.
My daughter and my mother had a very close and beautiful relationship that lasted until my mother’s dying day. I believe it was cemented on the day of the milk accident. Not just because my mother could see that my daughter cared about fairness and justice, and was willing to fight for the (at that tender age) voiceless. But also because my mother could listen to a young child and discuss this issue as equals. What an act of kindness!
I think the fact that I came in and mopped the floor helped my mother to really hear the argument that many people in the general public cannot seem to grasp – an accident is not criminally punishable by law or by Grandma. There has to be some level of intent to turn an accident into a crime.