Understanding Lack of Intent as a Military Defense Strategy

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When you have been charged with a crime under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), a lack of intent can serve as a possible defense strategy. Lack of intent means that the defendant did not possess the required criminal intent when committing the alleged unlawful act. Here is what you should understand about using lack of intent as a military defense strategy.

Elements of Guilt

For a defendant to be found guilty of a crime, the prosecution must establish each element of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. Most crimes consist of two key elements: “actus reus” (physical action) and “mens rea” (guilty mind or intent).

“Actus reus” relates to the defendant’s physical actions or conduct, while “mens rea” represents the defendant’s mental state or intent when committing the act. A defendant is found criminally responsible only if they possessed the required intent at the time of the act.

For instance, theft is commonly considered to occur when someone takes the property of another person without their permission (actus rea) with the intent to permanently deprive them of it (mens rea). If someone borrows a lawnmower from their neighbor and forgets to return it, later facing theft charges, they may use lack of intent as a defense against the charges. 


Still, it’s important to understand the nuances of intent and the law. In the military, ignorance of the law is not the same thing as a lack of intent. Intent focuses on whether someone intended to take an action – not whether or not they knew that the action in question is illegal. Even if someone commits an act unknowingly illegal, they can still face criminal charges. 

Additionally, there are strict liability offenses, for which intent isn’t a requirement for prosecution. In such instances, the only element that matters is whether a particular act was committed.

Some examples of strict liability offenses in the military include:

  • Violating safety protocols
  • Mishandling sensitive materials
  • Breaching security procedures

For example, if a service member unintentionally enters into a restricted area, he or she could still be held liable for breach.

General vs. Specific Intent Crimes

As with many jurisdictions, the military sometimes differentiates between general and specific intent crimes. General intent crimes involve intending to commit an act, without considering specific outcomes. In contrast, specific intent crimes involve intending to achieve particular results through an action. For instance, a general intent crime in the military could include a service member intentionally hitting another person even if they didn’t intend to cause a specific injury to them. Alternately, a specific intent crime requires that the accused committed a certain act with a specific purpose in mind when doing so. For example, a specific intent crime could involve a service member breaking into a secure area with the intention of stealing classified information. 

Lack of Intent as a Defense Strategy

A defense strategy for lack of intent hinges on whether the defendant lacked any intent for general intent crimes. For specific intent crimes, the defense wants to show that while the defendant possessed general intent, he or she did not intend the specific outcome of the act.

In military criminal cases, a defense lawyer can use a lack of intent to create uncertainty about the prosecution’s case. They might also use defenses like “mistake of fact,” if the defendant reasonably believed something wrong, or “involuntary intoxication,” if the defendant’s intent was affected. 

Lack of intent is a strong defense, putting pressure on the prosecution to prove intent solidly. Knowing how this defense works can greatly shape the result of the case. Getting guidance from a skilled defense lawyer is key to handling these intricacies well and building a powerful defense strategy.

The Court-Martial Law Division of Aviso Law LLC Helps Military Members in Colorado Who Have Been Charged with a Crime

The U.S. Government has an interest in obtaining a conviction as soon as possible, as it does not wish to gain negative publicity about one of its service members. That is why it is so important to consult with a knowledgeable and experienced military attorney as soon as possible.

If you are a military service member and have been charged with a crime under the UCMJ, the Court-Martial Law Division of Aviso Law LLC can help. We proudly serve our military members, who sacrifice so much for our country. To learn more or to schedule a free consultation, contact us today!

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