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Criminal Attempt

Most people understand there is a difference between committing a crime and attempting to commit a crime. But both can lead to criminal charges. In most cases, the legal definitions for these crimes are quite different. So are the penalties if you are convicted. This makes sense. If you succeed in committing a crime, you should be punished more severely than if you merely try to commit a crime.

This article will explain criminal attempt and why intent is so important when it comes to this charge. You'll also learn about the various stages of a crime, including first-degree murder.

Legal Definition of Criminal Attempt

The legal definition of criminal attempt — in which the defendant ultimately fails to pull off the crime — varies from state to state.

Generally, charges for attempt are filed when an individual has the actual intent to commit a crime and takes direct action toward completing the crime but fails. Once a crime is actually completed, you can no longer be charged with criminal attempt.

You cannot be convicted of both criminal attempt and the crime itself. For example, imagine that you drive to a stranger's house with a bag of lockpicking tools. Your goal is to break in and steal the homeowner's cash, electronics, and other belongings. Unfortunately (or fortunately), your lockpicking skills aren't what they used to be, and you can't get into the dwelling.

If law enforcement shows up just as you are attempting, for the third time, to pick the lock, you can be charged with attempted burglary. You cannot be charged with an actual burglary because you were not successful in gaining entry to the stranger's home.

Criminal Attempt and the Importance of Intent

Not all crimes can be "attempted," legally speaking. Only those crimes that require specific intent can be attempted. Specific intent refers to the state of mind of an individual when they plan to commit a certain crime knowing what the outcome may be.

For instance, there is no such thing as an attempted battery because the crime of battery doesn't require a premeditated intent to cause harm. However, someone who threatens bodily harm may be charged with assault. This is because the crime of assault requires the offender to intend to scare or threaten their victim.

One common example of an attempted crime is attempted murder. To be convicted of murder, the defendant must intend to kill another individual and then succeed in doing so. For you to be convicted of attempted murder, you must intend to kill somebody and take action toward that end yet fall short of actually doing so.

Criminal Attempt and Murder

As discussed above, because attempt crimes are typically incomplete by their nature, establishing an individual's intent is often the key to securing a conviction. Therefore, it's important to note that it is not enough that an individual intends to harm or seriously harm their victim for an attempted murder conviction. They have to actually take steps toward that goal to be convicted of attempted murder.

In some jurisdictions, a defendant must do more than merely prepare to commit the offense. The defendant must actually take substantial steps toward committing the murder, regardless of any premeditated plans.

However, other jurisdictions permit a conviction based on proof that the defendant took considerable steps toward committing an actual murder. For example, in some jurisdictions, you can be convicted of attempted murder if the state can prove that you wrote a detailed plan and procured a would-be murder weapon.

Since every state has its own laws for attempted murder, you should contact a criminal law attorney to determine your odds of being convicted.

When Can You Be Charged With Criminal Attempt for an Incomplete Crime?

There is no clear line in the sand that you must cross before you are charged with criminal attempt. It depends on several factors, including:

  • The elements of the crime you were attempting to commit
  • Whether you set the wheels in motion prior to your arrest
  • Whether law enforcement finds tools and materials you planned to use to commit a crime
  • If your actions represent mere preparation or something more
  • If you took substantial steps to complete the crime

The prosecutor will also look at your course of conduct and the attendant circumstances in your case. There are a lot of people who think about committing a criminal offense and then back out at the last minute. Some have a change of heart and tell their intended victim what they had planned to do to them. Every situation is unique. Whether you'll be charged with criminal attempt depends on the specific facts of your case.

In most jurisdictions, a crime is deemed incomplete if the defendant did either of the following:

  • Abandoned the commission of the crime after taking substantial steps to commit it (such as arranging a robbery and procuring a handgun)
  • Failed to complete the crime after taking steps to commit it (for instance, being foiled by an alarm system or security guard)

If you are charged with any criminal offense, and the prosecutor cannot find sufficient evidence to prove you did it, they may decide to charge you with attempt instead.

For example, imagine that someone wanted to hire a hit person to kill their spouse, but they ultimately couldn't afford to go through with it. They may still be charged with attempted solicitation to commit murder. It all depends on what the prosecutor can prove.

Stages of an Incomplete Crime

The best way to explain when a person can be charged with criminal attempt is to outline the stages of a crime. Generally, the stages of an incomplete crime consist of the following:

  1. The perpetrator considers committing a crime and weighs the pros and cons before deciding whether to do it. It's just a thought at this point.
  2. The perpetrator affirmatively decides to commit the crime. Again, still just a thought.
  3. The perpetrator prepares for the crime by bringing in accomplices or purchasing the necessary materials (guns, disguises, etc.).
  4. The perpetrator begins the commission of the crime. For example, they may drive to the bank to rob it but not get out of the car.
  5. For one reason or another, the crime isn't completed.

This is a very general list and will vary depending on the criminal offense. If you're charged, the state will look to see how far you allegedly went toward the commission of a crime before they decide how to charge you. They will also consider the steps you took in furtherance of the crime before you had a change of heart or were stopped by law enforcement.

What Is an Inchoate Offense?

There are some crimes that require the offender to commit smaller crimes along the way. For example, imagine that somebody wants to kill their spouse. They don't have the guts to do it themself, so they want to hire a hit person. This would qualify as solicitation. Once their hired gun kills their spouse, they can then be charged with the completed crime of murder by hire.

In this example, if the person didn't follow through with the murder, they could still be charged with solicitation to commit murder. This would be in addition to any charges of attempted murder.

Most first-degree, second-degree, and even third-degree felonies involve lesser, inchoate crimes. When your criminal case is filed, you should meet with an attorney who can help separate the various charges. They will go through each level of criminal conduct and outline the different crimes you will be tried for.

What Are the Penalties for Criminal Attempt?

It is impossible to say with any certainty what the exact penalties are for criminal attempt. It all depends on the state and the crime attempted. Each state has its own laws and punishments.

Usually, the penalty for an attempted crime will be less than half of that for the completed crime. For example, the penal code in Michigan states that the penalty for criminal attempt can be no more than half the prison sentence a defendant would face had they succeeded in committing the underlying crime.

Many states also split criminal attempt into felonies and misdemeanors. They may go even further and break them down into Class A and Class B offenses. For example, if the underlying crime carries a sentence of less than five years, criminal attempt would be considered a misdemeanor.

Are There Defenses to the Crime of Attempt?

People accused of unlawful conduct have the right to defend themselves. For some crimes, there are affirmative defenses. That means you admit wrongdoing but say there were mitigating circumstances. For example, your attorney may argue that you were forced into a motor vehicle by a spouse or partner who planned on committing a burglary.

Another defense is that you took no overt act toward the commission of a crime. Your attorney may be able to prove that any thoughts or conversations you had about a crime were in jest and that you had no specific intent to commit any crime.

Of course, the strongest defense is if you can show that you had nothing to do with the commission of the offense. Perhaps the police officers arrested you by accident. Maybe they assumed you had committed an act of domestic violence or sexual assault simply because your spouse or significant other showed them a copy of a restraining order.

It will be up to your attorney to demonstrate that you are not guilty of unlawful behavior. Whether you've been charged with a misdemeanor or felony, it is important that you secure a strong criminal defense lawyer.

Charged With Criminal Attempt? Talk to a Local Attorney Today

Attempted crimes, because they are incomplete, swing on some very fine distinctions. As such, there are many opportunities for a clever defense attorney to undermine the prosecution's case. In any event, defendants have the right to defend themselves against criminal charges in court.

If you're facing charges, your best option is to consult a criminal defense lawyer. It's essential that you find someone who specializes in criminal law. There is too much at stake to try to handle this on your own.

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