Motive (law)

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For other uses, see Motive (disambiguation).

A motive, in law, especially criminal law, is the cause that moves people to induce a certain action.[1] Motive, in itself, is not an element of any given crime; however, the legal system typically allows motive to be proven in order to make plausible the accused's reasons for committing a crime, at least when those motives may be obscure or hard to identify with. However, a motive is not required to reach a verdict.[2] Motives are also used in other aspects of a specific case, for instance, when police are initially investigating.[2]

The law technically distinguishes between motive and intent. "Intent" in criminal law is synonymous with Mens rea, which means the mental state shows liability which is enforced by law as an element of a crime.[3] "Motive" describes instead the reasons in the accused's background and station in life that are supposed to have induced the crime. Motives are often broken down into three categories; biological, social and personal.[4]


There are two objections to motive when considering punishment. The first is volitional objection, which is the argument that the person cannot manage his or her own motives and therefore cannot be punished for them. The second objection is neutrality objection. This is based on the idea that our society has contrasting political opinions and therefore a government’s preference should be limited.[5]


There are four different ways a defendants motive can be pertinent to his or her criminal liability. Motive can be fully inculpatory or exculpatory or only partially inculpatory or exculpatory. When one has acted with a specific motive, lawful behavior becomes illegal, and this is when motive is fully inculpatory. If illegal activity with a particular motive does not hold a defendant responsible than that motive is fully exculpatory. When a motive supplies inadequate defense to a crime, the motive is partially exculpatory. When a motive says the kind of infraction for which the defendant is responsible, the motive is partially inculpatory.[5]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Garner, Bryan A. (2005). Blacks Law Dictionary, Abridged Eight Edition. Thomson / West. p. 855. ISBN 0-314-15863-4. 
  2. ^ a b Law Library - American Law and Legal Information - JRank Articles. (n.d.). Retrieved October 14, 2014.
  3. ^ Frug, Sara S. "Mens Rea". LII / Legal Information Institute. Retrieved 2015-10-15. 
  4. ^ Types of Motives: Biological, Social and Personal Motives - See more at: (n.d.). Retrieved October 14, 2014.
  5. ^ a b Hessick, Carrisa (2006). "Motive's Role in Criminal Punishment" (PDF). Southern California Law Review. Retrieved October 8, 2015.