Actus reus

"Actus reus", sometimes called the external element or the objective element of a crime, is the Latin term for the "guilty act" which, when proved beyond a reasonable doubt in combination with the "mens rea", "guilty mind", produces criminal liability in the common law-based criminal law jurisdictions of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, England, Scotland and the United States. In the United States, some crimes also require proof of an attendant circumstance.


The terms "actus reus" and "mens rea" developed in English Law, are derived from the principle stated by Edward Coke, namely, "actus non facit reum nisi mens sit rea", [Coke, chapter 1, folio 10] which means: "an act does not make a person guilty unless (their) mind is also guilty"; hence, the general test of guilt is one that requires proof of fault, culpability or blameworthiness both in behaviour and mind.


In order for an "actus reus" to be committed there has to have been an act. Various common law jurisdictions define act differently but generally, an act is a "bodily movement whether voluntary or involuntary." [Model Penal Code § 1.13(2)] In "Robinson v. California", ussc|370|660|1962, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a California law making it illegal to be a drug addict was unconstitutional because the mere status of being a drug addict was not an "act" and thus not criminal.

An act can consist of commission, omission or possession.


:"See main article omission (criminal)Omission involves a failure to engage in a necessary "bodily movement" resulting in injury. As with commission acts, omission acts can be reasoned causally using the "but for" approach. "But for" not having acted, the injury would not have occurred. The Model Penal Code specifically outlines specifications for criminal omissions: [Model Penal Code § 2.01(3)]

#the omission is expressly made sufficient by the law defining the offense; or
#a duty to perform the omitted act is otherwise imposed by law.

So if legislation specifically criminalizes an omission through statute; or a duty that would normally be expected was omitted and caused injury, an "actus reus" has occurred.


Possession holds a special place in that it has been criminalized but under common law does not constitute an act. ["Regina v. Dugdale", 1 El. & Bl. 435, 439 (1853) (ruled that the mere possession of indecent images with the intent to publish them was not a crime as possession did not constitute an act)] Some countries like the United States have made avoided the common law conclusion in "Dugdale" by legally defining possession as a "voluntary" act. As a voluntary act, it fulfills the requirements to establish "actus reus". [N.Y. Penal Law § 15.00(2)] [Model Penal Code § 2.01(4)]


In this respect, the role of automatism is highly relevant in providing a positive explanation of the need to demonstrate the voluntariness of the behaviour for it to found liability. This is supported by the English case Hill v Baxter, which held that the act must be voluntary for the defendant to be guilty. Voluntariness is one of the key points in establishing if an "actus reus" has been committed. A person suffering from a seizure who stabs somebody trying to help them has not committed an "actus reus" because it was involuntary act. Definitions of a voluntary or involuntary act have varied over time but legal scholars have over time developed tests. Oliver Wendell Holmes, in his 1881 book The Common Law explained that "A spasm is not an act. The contraction of the muscles must be willed." Indeed, the Model Penal Code, which is utilized by many U.S. states in constructing their penal codes, specifically describes what are considered involuntary acts and thus not criminal:
#a reflex or convulsion;
#a bodily movement during unconsciousness or sleep;
#conduct during hypnosis or resulting from hypnotic suggestion;
#a bodily movement that otherwise is not a product of the effort or the determination of the actor, either conscious or habitual.

Voluntariness does not exclude omission because it is implicit in omission that the actor voluntarily chose to not perform a "bodily movement" and thus caused an injury. The purposeful, reckless, or negligent absence of an action is considered a voluntary action and completes the voluntary requirement for "actus reus". [Commonwealth v. Pestinkas, 421 Pa. Super. 371 (1992)] ["People v. Steinberg", 79 N.Y.2d 673 (1992)]

ee also

*Common Law
*Mens rea




*cite book
title=Institutes, Part III
author=Coke, Edward
date 1797

*cite book
title=Criminal Law: Model Penal Code
author=Dubber, Markus D.
publisher=Foundation Press

External links

* [ Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Theories of Criminal Law]
* [http://www.Criminal CRIMINAL LAW ONLINE]

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • actus reus — ac·tus re·us / ak təs rē əs, äk tu̇s rā u̇s/ n [New Latin, guilty deed]: the wrongful act that makes up the physical action of a crime see also crime compare mens rea Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of Law. Merriam Webster. 1996 …   Law dictionary

  • Actus reus — est le terme latin signifiant l acte de culpabilité (l élément externe ou objectif d une infraction criminelle). C est un élément essentiel dans la détermination d un crime. Ainsi, lorsqu aucun doute raisonnable ne subsiste par suite de la… …   Wikipédia en Français

  • actus reus — /asktas riyas/ The guilty act. A wrongful deed which renders the actor criminally liable if combined with mens rea. The actus reus is the physical aspect of a crime, whereas the mens rea (guilty mind) involves the intent factor. Actus servi in… …   Black's law dictionary

  • actus reus — /æktəs ˈreɪəs/ (say aktuhs rayuhs) noun Law the act or series of acts which constitute a crime, as opposed to the intention of the accused. See mens rea. {New Latin actus deed + reus guilty} …   Australian English dictionary

  • actus reus — noun a physical act that attracts criminal sanctions. See Also: mens rea …   Wiktionary

  • actus reus — criminal act, physical component of a criminal act …   English contemporary dictionary

  • actus reus — [ˌaktəs reɪəs] noun Law action or conduct which is a constituent element of a crime, as opposed to the mental state of the accused. Compare with mens rea. Origin L., lit. guilty act …   English new terms dictionary

  • actus reus — noun activity that transgresses moral or civil law he denied any wrongdoing • Syn: ↑wrongdoing, ↑wrongful conduct, ↑misconduct • Derivationally related forms: ↑misconduct (for: ↑ …   Useful english dictionary

  • non est reus nisi mens sit rea — /non est riyas naysay menz sit riya/ One is not guilty unless his intention be guilty. This maxim is much criticized and is only applicable when the absence of intent reduces the seriousness of the crime. See actus non facit reum, etc.; mens rea …   Black's law dictionary

  • Concurrence — For other uses, see Concurrency (disambiguation). Criminal law …   Wikipedia

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