Can You be Guilty of Crimes You Do Not Complete?

It is illegal to commit a crime. That simple statement would seem straightforward enough. But do you really know what the words “commit a crime” mean? On the surface it would appear that the crime must be completed. That is, if you commit a robbery, you must actually follow through and rob someone.

That definition leaves out an entire category of what are known as inchoate, or incomplete crimes. In common language, we call these “attempts,” and you have probably heard of people convicted of attempted murder or attempted robbery.

Inchoate Crimes

Inchoate crimes can also include acts that are completed, even if the actor does not actually commit the crime. For example, the crime of criminal conspiracy on the surface may involve legal acts—planning, helping, or assisting someone—but when those normally legal acts are conducted to further or assist someone else in committing a crime, those acts are criminal.

Incomplete crimes can be difficult to prove because the law can not criminalize your thoughts or, to some extent, even your words.

If someone says they intend to rob a bank and you say “great idea, make sure to wear a mask,” are you conspiring to commit the crime? Probably not. Likewise, the law could not penalize you for thinking about how to kill someone you did not like, so long as your plans remain simply in your head. Even admitting you were thinking about conducting the act of murder likely would not be a crime.

So, when do incomplete crimes become actual crimes? Usually, when there is an overt act that furthers the planned crime. That often means something beyond merely planning.

If you plan to kill someone, buy a weapon, call them and have them meet you in a dark alley, and you show up, but at the last minute opt to walk away, you may have taken enough action to constitute a crime.

Failed Attempts

The law can punish you even when you fail in your criminal act. If you break into a home to steal property, but find a burglar alarm that scares you off, or even if you have a change of heart at the last minute and leave, you likely would be charged with attempted robbery or attempted larceny. If you throw a match on someone’s property intending to burn it and the match fizzles out causing no harm, you likely have committed attempted arson.

Specific Intent Needed 

Incomplete crimes do not apply to every kind of crime. They only apply to those where you intend not just to commit an act, but you intend to have a specific result.

For example, there is no “attempted battery” because as long as you intended to strike someone and you do, battery is a crime, even if you did not intent to hurt anyone.

Compare that to a hate crime, which requires that you not only intentionally commit a crime, but do so with the specific attempt to harm a protected group or class of people.

Make sure you understand the crime you are charged with if you are arrested in Maryland. Contact the attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC today for a free consultation to discuss your case and all possible defenses.