Actus Reus (Voluntary Act)

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'Actus Reus' refers to the requirement that the defendant have carried out a voluntary act. It is important to distinguish such acts from thoughts, words, states of possession, or status; involuntary acts; and omissions.

What Acts Are Not

  • Acts are distinct from thoughts, words, possession and status.
    • Thoughts alone can never be punished as crimes. Lawmakers are hesitant to impose controls on what people may think, and such laws would also present profound problems of proof and enforcement.
    • Words usually cannot constitute acts. However, depending on the jurisdiction and the crime, an agreement to commit a crime may be enough to constitute conspiracy, and words of encouragement may constitute aiding and abetting a crime.
    • In most countries, possession holds a unique position, as it does not constitute an act, but may be criminalized. In some countries, however, including the United States, possession has been legally defined as a voluntary act. Possession usually includes only knowing, conscious possession.
    • A defendant's status or condition cannot constitute an act. In the United States, the Supreme Court has held that a law making addiction a crime to be an unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment.


Chapter 1, Criminal Law, Emanuel Law Outline, Aspen Publishers, 2000