Voluntary Act Requirement

Fundamentals of Criminal Law by Adam J. McKee

In criminal law, the concept of a “voluntary” act is a cornerstone for establishing criminal liability. The general rule is that for an act to be considered criminal, it must be a product of an individual’s free will combined with bodily movement. This aligns with the foundational elements of criminal liability, namely actus reus (the criminal act) and mens rea (criminal intent).

The law focuses on these two aspects to determine whether or not a person is culpable for their actions. For example, a doctor who is checking your reflexes causes you to inadvertently kick them in the face; the kick would generally not be considered a battery since it lacks the element of intent.

Involuntary Acts

While involuntary actions like reflexes, convulsions, or actions taken during unconscious states often exempt a person from criminal liability, this is not always a blanket rule. The key factor is the context in which these involuntary actions occur and the foreseeability of the resultant harm.

Legal Consequences for Dangerous Acts

Criminal Liability in Dangerous Situations

The voluntariness requirement does not serve as an absolute shield against criminal liability, especially when one’s actions, whether voluntary or involuntary, result in a dangerous situation. Courts have clarified that if an individual knowingly places themselves in a situation where involuntary actions could lead to harm, they could still be criminally liable.

Case in Point: Epileptic Seizures While Driving

A commonly cited example to illustrate this principle involves individuals with epilepsy. If a person is aware that they are prone to epileptic seizures and still chooses to operate a vehicle, they can be held criminally liable for any harm caused during a seizure. This is because the individual knowingly took a risk that could lead to a dangerous situation, and thereby violated a social and legal responsibility to prevent foreseeable harm to others.

Balancing Personal Freedom and Social Responsibility

While the legal system places a high value on personal freedoms, including the freedom to act according to one’s will, this freedom is not unlimited. It is counterbalanced by a social and legal responsibility to ensure that one’s actions do not put others at unnecessary risk. Hence, even if an act is involuntary, the context in which it occurs and its predictability play a pivotal role in determining criminal liability.

Implications for Criminal Justice Professionals

Importance for Legal Practitioners and Law Enforcement

Understanding the nuances of what constitutes a “voluntary” act in criminal law is crucial for those in the legal and criminal justice fields. From law enforcement officers to prosecutors, grasping the complex interplay between voluntariness, foreseeability, and social responsibility is key for accurate application and interpretation of the law.

The Complexity of “Voluntariness” in Legal Terms

The principle of “voluntariness” in criminal law serves as a testament to the complexity of balancing individual freedoms with collective safety. While the legal system generally requires a voluntary act for criminal liability, it also acknowledges that certain contexts demand accountability even for involuntary actions. The overarching aim remains the same: to enforce a legal framework that fairly assesses culpability while protecting societal interests. Understanding this intricacy is essential not just for legal practitioners but also for citizens who wish to navigate the boundaries of their rights and responsibilities effectively.

It’s Greek to Me

People often use the phrase “It’s Greek to me” to suggest that they don’t understand a particular word or phrase.  The history of our legal system has exposed it to several different forms of the English language as well as several other languages (none of which were Greek).  During the middle ages, literacy was rare, and, as a general rule, only clerics (men of the church) could read and write. During those times, Latin was the language of the Bible and the church.  Thus many writings from the middle ages were in Latin rather than middle English.

Always keep in mind that the law is a very conservative profession, and that change is slow and traditional ways of doing and saying things are valued.  Many legal terms come to us from Latin, as well as Middle French and other historical sources. Many authors have made compelling arguments that lawyers should simplify and modernize the language of the profession so that everyone can understand the law.  This has yet to happen.

By convention, Latin words that have become a part of the English language through common use are now considered English words, and writers treat them as any other English words.  When a word is still considered to be “foreign,” it is usually set of in italics to signal to the reader that the word or phrase is Latin (or some other language). Since such terms are plentiful in the law, it is essential that serious students of the law commit the common ones to memory.

References and Further Reading

Voluntary Act.West’s Encyclopedia of American Law.

Modification History

File Created:  07/12/2018

Last Modified:  09/05/2023

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

Open Education Resource--Quality Master Source License


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