Actus Reus (Voluntary Act)
'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.
- Acts must be voluntary. Reflexes, bodily movements during sleep or unconsciousness, and conduct while under hypnosis do not constitute acts. However, conduct leading to the involuntary state may suffice, e.g. an individual who has himself hypnotized for the purpose of committing a crime. Similarly, becoming extremely intoxicated before crashing a car would surely satisfy the act requirement.
Chapter 1, Criminal Law, Emanuel Law Outline, Aspen Publishers, 2000