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Mental Illness Defense in Utah

Can a mental illness serve as a defense in Utah criminal cases?

It is sometimes assumed (incorrectly) that a mental illness defense can be raised in a Utah criminal prosecution case only when the charged crime is one requiring evidence of "specific intent." Raising a mental illness defense is complicated regardless of the nature of the offense charged. But depending on the nature of the illness and on the circumstances of the alleged defense, a mental illness defense in a felony or misdemeanor case can potentially apply to either a specific intent or general intent crime.

When facing criminal charges, it is vital to have the effective assistance of counsel. Contact us today to see how our criminal defense team can help.

Specific Intent or General Intent

With the exception of so-called "strict liability" crimes, a criminal offense in Utah will require some level of culpable mental state. This required mental state is often referred to by the Latin term "mens rea" (translated roughly as "guilty mind"). Criminal charges can generally be divided into two categories of mens rea based on either a "specific intent" or a "general intent."

Criminal Attorney Salt Lake City, UtahA general intent crime requires only proof that the person generally intended to commit the act. For example, a charge of DUI requires only that the prosecutor prove that the defendant intended to drive the vehicle. The prosecutor does not have to prove that the defendant intended to be drunk or impaired, or even that he was aware of the fact that he was drunk or impaired. If the prosecutor can convince a jury beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant had the general intent to act (sometimes referred to as committing a "willful" act) and that the act satisfied the other elements of the offense, then a jury may convict on a general intent crime.

A specific intent crime differs from a general intent offense by requiring that the defendant act with some specified purpose or intent. For example, In a burglary case a defendant can be convicted if a jury finds that he unlawfully entered a home "with the intent to commit a theft." A general intent only to enter a home unlawfully would constitute the lesser misdemeanor crime of trespass. But if the specific intent to commit a theft is added to the trespass, then a charge of burglary can be supported.

Applying Mental Illness as a Defense

It is commonly accepted by most Utah practitioners that a mental illness defense can apply to specific intent crimes. A general intent crime can present a less straightforward problem. But there is nothing in Utah's mental illness defense statute that restricts the application of the defense only to specific intent crimes.

Further, some crimes that are often thought of as general intent crimes have alternate elements that can turn the offense into a specific intent crime. Consider the crime of assault as an example. Utah's statutes defining the crime of assault generally provide multiple alternative elements by which a charge of assault can be proved.

One alternative set of elements under Utah's assault laws requires evidence that the defendant "attempted" to do bodily injury. A crime that involves an "attempt" will almost always involve an element of specific intent. In an assault case prosecuted under the "attempt" alternative, the prosecutor must present evidence that the defendant had the actual intent or purpose to cause injury.

Another alternative set of elements requires proof that a defendant made a threat that was accompanied by a show of force. The concept of a "threat" has an inherent element of intent. If a person waves a hand in the air to say hello, that is no threat. If someone else sees the friendly wave and mistakenly interprets it as a threat, the person waving still is not making a threat. It is only when the person waves a hand in the air with the intent to intimidate, cause fear, etc. that an actual threat is made.

A third alternative set of elements that can support an assault charge in Utah includes "an act committed with unlawful force or violence" that causes injury. This alternative is often viewed as requiring only general intent, and in some cases that assessment would be correct. But to be certain, the facts surrounding the use of force and the causation of injury would need to be evaluated.

Under basic principles of Newtonian physics, any act that results in an injury must necessarily involve some kind of "force" (as well as a second force which must equal the first force - equal and opposite reaction). But not every use of "force" is unlawful. Often it is the actor's intent that makes a force unlawful. A doctor who accidentally slips with a scalpel might cause a laceration injury to a patient that would be similar to the injury caused by someone who attempts to stab an opponent with a knife during a fight. The severity of the laceration might be different. But it would still be the intent of the actor that would make the difference between "lawful" and "unlawful" use of force.

Defense or Mitigation

Regardless of whether a crime is a general intent offense or a specific intent offense, if a defendant has a mental illness then a possible defense relating to that mental illness should be considered. In some circumstances, the mental illness may serve as the basis for a complete defense to the charge. But even if there is not a complete defense based on the mental illness, case mitigation can often be supported by demonstrating how the mental illness could have contributed to the commission of the crime or how proper treatment of the condition will reduce the risk of recidivism.

Finding a Defense Attorney in Utah

Utah Criminal Defense LawyerAny criminal conviction can carry serious consequences. Whether you are facing felony or misdemeanor charges, having an experienced defense attorney on your side is critical to achieving the results you need.

The right defense strategy and the right criminal defense attorney can make all the difference. Contact us today to see how we can help you.


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Serving Salt Lake, Davis, Weber, Utah, Cache, Tooele, Summit, Box Elder, and Wasatch Counties, and all of Utah.

Attorney Stephen Howard practices as part of the Canyons Law Group, LLC and Stephen W. Howard, PC.

Offices in Salt Lake and Davis Counties
560 South 300 East, Suite 200, Salt Lake City, UT 84111
952 S. Main St., Suite A, Layton, UT 84041

Call now to arrange for a confidential initial consultation with an experienced and effective Utah criminal defense lawyer.

In Salt Lake City, call 801-449-1409.
In Davis County, call 801-923-4345.

Stephen W. Howard, PC

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