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When is a negligent act criminal?

One of the principles of criminal law states that without culpability there is no crime and no punishment. But there are different forms of culpability. For some crimes, intent is presumed, for others, negligence. How do they differ in practice and what are examples of intent and negligence?

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In order for an act to be considered criminal, the culpability of the perpetrator is required. As a rule, the Criminal Code presupposes intentional culpability, unless it expressly provides for a specific criminal offence (or its so-called constituent elements) that negligent culpability is also sufficient.

Tip: For misdemeanours, the above principle applies in reverse. As a rule, negligence is sufficient unless the law expressly provides that intentional fault is required.

These two forms differ from each other in the presence of two components, namely knowledge (I know with certainty or with some probability of a certain fact) and volition (I want to do something or I am aware that it will happen). Intention includes both components, negligence only includes the component of knowledge. It is irrelevant whether the knowledge and volitional components correspond exactly to objective reality. For example, in the case of a purse snatcher, we do not assume that he knows that there are six thousand crowns in the purse; what is important is his intention to steal the purse.
Culpability is defined as the offender’s internal psychological relationship to the crime.

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Tip: we have discussed what is a crime and how we divide the different crimes in a separate article.

Deliberate acts

The intent of the perpetrator can be further distinguished into direct and indirect intent.

Direct intent: the person knows that by his or her conduct he or she may commit a criminal offence and intends to commit it.

Example. He suspects that there is a large sum of money in the till before the end of the week, he wants to seize it and he knows that he will commit the crime of theft.

Indirect intent: the person knows that he or she may commit a crime by his or her actions, it is not directly his or her intention, but he or she is aware of it. In human terms, it does not make much difference whether or not he commits the crime. Thus, he acts with a certain intention, which is not directly the crime in question, but it is clear that the crime will probably occur. Indirect intent is considered a less intense form of culpability than direct intent.

Example. Thus, in addition to negligent battery, he commits the offence of failing to render assistance, for which we would show indirect intent.

Indirect intent differs from direct intent in that the perpetrator’s relationship to the consequence of his conduct is less clear. Both direct and indirect intent must be shown to the perpetrator. Indirect intent cannot be inferred from mere indifference to a possible consequence.

Intent is assessed from many different components of the perpetrator’s conduct – for example, in the case of grievous bodily harm or murder, we examine the verbal component of the attack (threats), the instrument used, the manner of its use, the intensity of the blow, etc. It is the complex of these components that should lead us to a conclusion about the perpetrator’s intent, not just one of them.

Example: in his excitement, Mr Old shouted at his girlfriend, “You crashed my car, I’m going to kill you“. Being volatile and prone to violence, he accompanied his words with a giant slap. Miss Young did not suffer any significant bodily harm, but she does not intend to tolerate her boyfriend’s behaviour and is considering breaking up with him. Although a death threat was made and violence was used, we would characterize (in light of the other circumstances) Mr. Old’s actions as rudeness, but not as a deliberate attempt at murder.


Negligence is also subdivided, namely into conscious and unconscious negligence. Gross negligence is then a separate category.

Conscious negligence

This is a situation where a person knows that he or she is likely to commit a criminal offence by his or her conduct, but without reasonable grounds relies on the fact that he or she will not do so.

Example. Although Mrs. Green has slept only four hours, is very tired and still under the influence of the drug, she tells herself that she will be able to drive on the highway because the roads will be empty. Unfortunately, however, she unintentionally causes an accident and commits the offence of grievous bodily harm (resulting in death) by negligence.

It is car accidents that are typically the case when negligent crimes are committed. In this context, other common offences (apart from the example above) are also negligent homicide or negligent damage to property.

Negligence without knowledge

This is a situation where a person does not know that he or she may commit a criminal offence by his or her conduct, but given the circumstances could and should have known. In such a case, the assessment of what the person should have known is based on the particular circumstances and circumstances of the person.

Example: Mrs. Cerna went to visit a museum. She was only interested in the exhibition until she noticed the fire alarm button. She thought back to her student days and found it amusing to set off the alarm and run away. She assumed that triggering it would cause the staff to arrive and sound the alarm. She didn’t realize that she would also trigger the fire extinguisher system at the same time, releasing several hundred pounds of fire extinguishing gas. The damage was estimated at three million crowns. Ms Cerna was charged with the offence of damaging and endangering the operation of a public utility by negligence.

Gross negligence

It is understood to be a higher degree of negligence, whether conscious or unconscious, where the offender’s attitude to the requirement of due care shows his or her apparent disregard for the interests protected by criminal law. Some offences can only be committed through gross negligence.

Example: Mrs Dull went on holiday for a week and left one bowl of water and one bowl of kibble for her three dogs in a closed shed. One dog did not survive the seven-day stay in the enclosed space without water, the other two are severely dehydrated and in critical condition. Ms Hrubá was negligent in the care of the animal, a fact that is commonly associated with gross negligence.

Culpability and insanity

If the perpetrator is insane, we cannot speak of culpability. In fact, insanity is caused by the disappearance of the power of discernment (where even unconscious negligence is not possible) or of the component of control (where free will is absent).

It is not necessarily insanity in the general sense, i.e. in the sense of some mental disorder or deprivation of capacity. It may be a momentary state of seconds or minutes, caused, for example, by an epileptic seizure. Insanity may also be long-term, caused, for example, by schizophrenia, another illness or a mental disorder.

Example: Mrs. Vetchou suffered an epileptic seizure in which she knocked over a cast-iron coat rack in a store, causing property damage to the merchant (destruction of the wooden floor and glass display case) and a broken arm and shrapnel injuries to another customer after the coat rack and the display case fell together. In this case, however, there is no fault even in the form of negligence.

Theexception is where someone deliberately rendered themselves insane by consuming alcohol or other similar substance. If it is proved that the offender has been rendered insane with the intention of committing a criminal offence, then he is fully responsible for all the acts he has committed.

If the aforementioned intent is not proved, the offender shall be tried for the offence of drunkenness, which carries a penalty of imprisonment for three to ten years. If, however, the law provides for a lesser penalty for the act committed by the person concerned, that lesser penalty shall apply.

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Author of the article

JUDr. Ondřej Preuss, Ph.D.

Ondřej is the attorney who came up with the idea of providing legal services online. He's been earning his living through legal services for more than 10 years. He especially likes to help clients who may have given up hope in solving their legal issues at work, for example with real estate transfers or copyright licenses.

  • Law, Ph.D, Pf UK in Prague
  • Law, L’université Nancy-II, Nancy
  • Law, Master’s degree (Mgr.), Pf UK in Prague
  • International Territorial Studies (Bc.), FSV UK in Prague

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