Actus Reus

Fundamentals of Criminal Law by Adam J. McKee

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The actus reus (criminal act) is one of the elements of criminal liability that must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt in a criminal trial. Generally, the act must be voluntary. Thus, acts that are not voluntary, such as a reflex or convulsion, do not count. Contrary to the everyday use of the word, an omission (failing to do something) can satisfy the actus reus requirements for crimes.

Culpability and Crime

Culpability, or being culpable, refers to the degree to which a person should be held morally or legally accountable for an action.  When we ask whether a person is culpable for an act, we are asking how worthy of blame they are under the particular circumstances.  Under the legal system of the United States, very few crimes are strictly defined by the act the law seeks to prohibit. One way to view culpability is that it requires free will and decision making for a criminal act to be a culpable act.  When no decision was made to commit the crime, such as with a bona fide accident, there is no culpability. When the actor was not in actual control of his or her actions, there is generally no culpability or a reduced culpability. This concept is applied in various aspects of our understanding of the actus reus elements of crimes, figures heavily in your analysis of the mental element of crimes, and also weighs heavily in our notion of legal justifications and excuses.

References and Further Reading

“Victimless Crime.” Encyclopedia of Crime and Justice.  Retrieved September 21, 2018 from


Modification History

File Created:  07/12/2018

Last Modified:  09/26/2018

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This work is licensed under an Open Educational Resource-Quality Master Source (OER-QMS) License.

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