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 Are Not Acts
Thoughts, Words, Possession and Status
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.
Omissions do not constitute acts. For example, an individual who chooses not to save a stranger drowning in front of him usually cannot be held criminally liable, at least in the Anglo-American legal tradition. Reasons for this approach include the intuition that the difference between acting and failing to act should be legally important, the fact that laws criminalizing inaction would be impermissibly vague, and the difficulty of deciding which of various people should be held liable when more than one person chose not to act.
- There are a number of exceptions to this rule. For example, when the defendant and victim have a special relationship, such as when the defendant is the victim's parent, a duty to act may exist. A duty may also arise from contract; if two individuals have a relationship of mutual dependence, such as mountain climbers; if the danger to the victim was caused by the defendant; if the defendant has undertaken to assist the victim; if a statute imposes a duty to act; and if the defendant is a public official such as a police officer.
Chapter 1, Criminal Law, Emanuel Law Outline, Aspen Publishers, 2000