The Corpus Delecti and the Actus Reus

I don’t know how old I was when I first heard the words corpus delecti, but I can tell you I enjoyed saying the words. I thought they sounded good. Corpus delecti, corpus delecti. But then that awful day came when I had to understand what the words meant and I had to pull out my dictionary. Corpus delecti means body of the crime. It does not, however, mean dead body – that is a misconception.

What corpus delecti signifies is that the prosecution has to describe the visible evidence of the crime. The visible evidence is sometimesa dead body, but often it is a bag of weed or a stolen car. The corpus delecti relates specifically to the act element of an offense as opposed to the intent element. Since we are speaking Latin, let me introduce two other Latin phrases; actus reus and mens rea. Chances are you’ve heard of mens rea but not actus reus. To commit a crime, you need the convergence of the two. If you have an act committed with no intent – you have no crime. If you have intent, but no act – you have no crime. The actus reus is the wrongful deed. It is the physical component of the crime. It is the act that lead up to the crime. It is the act of stealing the money; of shooting the victim; of assaulting the victim.

The criminal law says that certain acts are inherently wrong and those acts are criminalized as a result. The intent part can be complicated. The mens rea can involve committing an act purposely, knowingly, negligently or recklessly.

I find the definition of a purposeful and/or a knowing act to be fairly simple. I find the definition of a negligent and/or a reckless act to be less so. Generally, a person acts purposely when it is their conscious object to cause the result forbidden by law.

By contrast, a person acts knowingly with respect to their conduct when they are aware that their conduct is of a particular nature. Now for the hard part. A person acts recklessly when they are aware of and consciously disregard a substantial and unjustifiable risk that something bad will result from their conduct.

The risk must be of such a nature and degree that, considering the circumstances known to them, its disregard constitutes a gross deviation from the conduct that a law-abiding person would observe in the situation.

A person acts negligently when they fail to become aware of a substantial and unjustifiable risk that something bad will result from their conduct. The risk must be of such a nature and degree that the failure to become aware of it constitutes a gross deviation from the conduct that a reasonable person would observe in the situation.

The reckless driver knows they are taking unnecessary and substantial risks. The negligent driver didn’t bother finding out.

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