What are the Four Levels of Criminal Intent in Pennsylvania?

Posted by Joseph D. Lento | Dec 20, 2019 | 0 Comments

Nearly all criminal laws in Pennsylvania can only be broken if the actor has the necessary level of intent. Each criminal statute is supposed to include what that level of intent is, though there are only four levels of criminal intent that Pennsylvania recognizes:

  1. Intent
  2. Knowledge
  3. Recklessness
  4. Criminal negligence

Whether a defendant had the necessary intent to commit the crime is often the biggest issue in the case, and hinges on the definitions laid out in 18 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 302.

Many Criminal Offenses Require Intentional Action

A huge portion of the criminal laws in Pennsylvania requires the conduct to be intentional in order for it to be illegal. For example:

  • Murder requires the killing to be intentional
  • It is only burglary if you go into a building with the intent to commit a crime
  • Theft requires an intent to permanently deprive the victim of their property

Intent, however, does not require premeditation. Intent can be formed in an instant. We went over the distinction earlier in our blog when we discussed the Dallas police officer's murder conviction for intentionally shooting and killing someone after entering the wrong apartment.

What Does It Mean to Act Knowingly?

A few criminal statutes in Pennsylvania only require a defendant to act knowingly for them to be liable for the crime. This falls short of intent, so the action does not have to be done for the purpose of committing the crime. Instead, under 18 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 302(b)(2), acting knowingly involves doing something that is practically certain to cause a prohibited result.

Recklessness Can Still Lead to a Criminal Conviction

Recklessness is one step further removed from intent. However, it cannot be said to be accidental, either. According to the Pennsylvania statute on the different levels of intent, recklessness is a conscious disregard of a substantial and unjustifiable risk that an action will lead to a criminal act. Disregarding that risk has to amount to a “gross deviation” from what a reasonable person would do in a similar situation.

Criminal Negligence Can Still Lead to a Conviction

Finally, there is criminal negligence. Importantly, criminal negligence is not just plain negligence. It is something more than just accidental conduct.

Instead, 18 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 302(b)(4) says that someone acts with criminal negligence when they “should be aware of a substantial and unjustifiable risk” that their conduct will be a crime, but they fail to perceive that risk.

Joseph D. Lento: Criminal Defense in Philadelphia

When they charge someone with a crime, prosecutors have to prove the necessary criminal intent beyond a reasonable doubt. Because they can't read a defendant's mind, never mind the defendant's mind as it was at the time of the alleged offense, prosecutors have to rely on what the defendant said or did and argue that they are outward manifestations of the necessary criminal intent.

Having a solid criminal defense lawyer on hand to combat those arguments is a huge part of defending against a criminal accusation. Call Joseph D. Lento at (215) 535-5353 or contact him online if you have been charged with a crime in Philadelphia.

About the Author

Joseph D. Lento

"I pride myself on having heart and driving hard to get results!" Attorney Joseph D. Lento passionately fights for the futures of his clients in criminal courtrooms in Philadelphia and across Pennsylvania as well as in New Jersey and nationwide. He does not settle for the easiest outcome, and instead prioritizes his clients' needs and well-being. With unparalleled experience occupying several roles in the criminal justice system outside of being an attorney, Joseph D. Lento can give you valuable behind-the-scenes insight as to what is happening during all phases of the legal process. Joseph D. Lento is licensed in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York, and is admitted pro hac vice as needed nationwide. In the courtroom and in life, attorney Joseph D. Lento stands up when the bell rings!


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Attorney Joseph D. Lento has more than a decade of experience successfully resolving clients' criminal charges in Philadelphia and the Pennsylvania counties. If you are having any uncertainties about what the future may hold for you or a loved one, contact the Lento Law Firm today! Criminal defense attorney Joseph D. Lento will go above and beyond the needs of any client, and will fight until the final bell rings.

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