Malicious intent denotes the evil motive of the actor, while doing the wrongful act. Here is a brief overview of this legal concept.
In New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that, “A State cannot, under the First and Fourteenth Amendments, award damages to a public official for defamatory falsehood relating to his official conduct unless he proves “actual malice” — that the statement was made with knowledge of its falsity or with reckless disregard of whether it was true or false.”
In law, the term intent denotes the state of mind of the person, who commits the wrongful act. In some types of crimes and torts, the intention of an individual plays a major role in determining his liability for causing harm to another through a wrongful act. Intent is nothing but the motive behind the action.
In civil law, intent is one of the main elements of intentional torts like battery, trespass, defamation, etc. Intentional torts denote those purposeful acts that can cause harm or injury to another. If a person knows that his act will cause such consequences, and he performs the act thereby causing such consequences; he is considered to act intentionally. For example, A was polishing his gun, when he pressed the trigger accidentally, thereby injuring B who was passing nearby. In this case, A’s act was not intentional. If A held a grudge against B, and wanted to cause harm to the latter; injuring B with his gun would be considered an intentional act that amounts to aggravated battery.
In criminal law, the term mens rea denotes the criminal intent, which is very important in certain crimes. A criminal act can be negligent or unintentional. If A drives carelessly and hits B, it is a negligent and unintentional act. If A had a quarrel with B, before hitting the latter; the act can be considered intentional. Mens rea means ‘guilty mind’ in Latin. It denotes the criminal intent of the person while committing the wrongful act.
Unlawful acts can be done intentionally or unintentionally. ‘Malicious intent’ is another term that is used to denote intentional wrongful acts.
Malicious Intent in Crimes and Torts
Malicious intent is the intentional wrongful act against someone, without any just cause, thereby causing harm to the latter. The main elements of malicious intent include intent and will. According to Black’s law dictionary, the definition of malice is as follows: “Malice is a condition of the mind which shows a heart regardless of social duty and fatally bent on mischief, the existence of which is inferred from the acts committed or words spoken.”
Express Malice: A wants to kill B and waits for him with a gun, around the corner of a wall. According to A’s plan, B comes that way, and A kills him. In this case, A has committed an unlawful act intentionally and willfully. This is an example of express malice, wherein A has committed the unlawful act deliberately, with the intention of taking away the life of B.
Implied Malice: A is a robber, who was committing theft, when he found a boy B, looking at him. A killed B, fearing that the latter may tip-off the cops. Though the killing was not preplanned, the circumstances prove that there was no provocation from B’s side; and A’s act shows gross recklessness with indifference to human life. This is called implied malice.
In case of certain crimes, the government has to prove that the offender acted intentionally as well as willfully. In Ratzlaf v. United States, 510 U.S. 135 (1994), it was held that, “In order to prove that the act was committed ‘willfully,’ the government must prove that the defendant acted with knowledge that his conduct was unlawful.”
Intent is classified into two types – general and specific. In general intent, the government must prove that the defendant intended to do the act that was prohibited by law. In case of battery, it has to be proved that the offender intended to cause physical harm to the victim, and caused the same. It is not necessary to prove whether the offender wanted to cause less severe physical injuries or serious ones.
In case of specific intent, the government has to prove that the offender intended to act in such a way to cause the specific result. In other words, the offender committed the act, anticipating the same result, which the act caused. If A enters B’s house by breaking the doors, to commit robbery; he must have the intent to steal goods. Here, the offender has the specific intent to commit robbery.
How to Prove Malicious Intent
In criminal law as well as the law of torts, there are certain acts that make the actor liable, irrespective of his mental state. This is called strict liability or absolute liability. In criminal law, statutory rape is an example of a strict liability offense. In civil law, a person responsible for conducting certain dangerous activities (like storing explosives), is liable in case of any miscarriage of the activity that results in harm to others.
According to law, there are certain unlawful acts that involve the element of malicious intent that has to be proved. In criminal law, murder is a crime that requires the government to prove the malicious intent of the defendant. In civil law, a defamation suit can be filed against a person for libel or slander. If the plaintiff proves the malicious intent of the defendant, the jury may increase the damages.
Proving malicious intention is not a necessity in all cases. There are certain crimes and torts that involve this element, which has to be proved by the plaintiff in civil cases and the government in criminal cases. In some cases, malicious intention can be made out from the very facts of the case, whereas in others, it has to be proved by interpreting the facts as well as the law. So, consulting an attorney is always better for those involved in such cases.