The Three Different Elements of a Crime

POV of drunk driver in a tunnel
rolfo / Getty Images

In the United States, there are specific elements of a crime that the prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt in order to obtain a conviction at trial. The three specific elements (with exception) that define a crime which the prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt in order to obtain a conviction: (1) that a crime has actually occurred (actus reus), (2) that the accused intended the crime to happen (mens rea) and (3) and concurrence of the two meaning there is a timely relationship between the first two factors.

Example of the Three Elements in Context

Jeff is upset with his ex-girlfriend, Mary, for ending their relationship. He goes to look for her and spots her having dinner with another man named Bill. He decides to get even with Mary by setting her apartment on fire. Jeff goes to Mary's apartment and lets himself in, using a key that Mary has asked for him to give back on several occasions. He then places several newspapers on the kitchen floor and sets them on fire. Just as he is leaving, Mary and Bill enter the apartment. Jeff runs off and Mary and Bill are able to quickly put out the fire. The fire did not cause any real damage, however, Jeff is arrested and charged with attempted arson. The prosecution must prove that a crime occurred, that Jeff intended for the crime to occur, and concurrence for attempted arson.

Understanding Actus Reus

A criminal act, or actus reus, is generally defined as a criminal act that was the result of voluntary bodily movement. A criminal act can also occur when a defendant fails to act (also known as omission). A criminal act must occur because people cannot be legally punished because of their thoughts or intentions. Also, referencing the Eighth Amendment Ban on Cruel and Unusual Punishment, crimes cannot be defined by status. 

Examples of involuntary acts, as described by the Model Penal Code, include:

  • 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 determination of the actor, either conscious or habitual. 

Example of an Involuntary Act

Jules Lowe of Manchester, England, was arrested and charged with the murder of his 83-year-old father Edward Lowe was brutally beaten and found dead in his driveway. During the trial, Lowe admitted to killing his father, but because he suffered from sleepwalking (also known as automatism), he did not remember committing the act. 

Lowe, who shared a house with his father, had a history of sleepwalking, had never been known to show any violence towards his father and had an excellent relationship with his father.

Defense lawyers also had Lowe tested by sleep experts who provided testimony at his trial that, based on the tests, Lowe suffered from sleepwalking. The defense concluded that the murder of his father was a result of insane automatism and that he could no be held legally responsible for the murder. The jury agreed and Lowe was sent to a psychiatric hospital where he was treated for 10 months and then released.

Example of a Voluntary Act Resulting in a Non-Voluntary Act

Melinda decided to celebrate after receiving a promotion at work. She went to her friend's house where she spent several hours drinking wine and smoking synthetic marijuana. When it is time to go home, Melinda, despite protests from friends, decided she was okay to drive herself home. During the drive home, she passed out at the wheel. While passed out, her car collided with an oncoming car, resulting in the death of the driver. 

Melinda voluntarily drank, smoked synthetic marijuana, and then decided to drive her car. The collision that resulted in the death of the other driver occurred when Melinda was passed out, but she was passed out due to decisions she voluntarily made before passing out and would, therefore, be found culpable for the death of the person driving the car she collided with while passed out.


An omission is another form of actus reus and is the act of failing to take action that would have prevented injury to another person. Criminal negligence is also a form of actus reus. 

An omission could be failing to warn others that they could be in danger because of something that you did, failure to a person left in your care, or failure to complete your work properly which resulted in an accident. 


mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Montaldo, Charles. "The Three Different Elements of a Crime." ThoughtCo, Sep. 8, 2021, Montaldo, Charles. (2021, September 8). The Three Different Elements of a Crime. Retrieved from Montaldo, Charles. "The Three Different Elements of a Crime." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 6, 2023).