An idea, belief, or emotion that impels a person to act in accordance with that state of mind.
Motive is usually used in connection with CRIMINAL LAW to explain why a person acted or refused to act in a certain way—for example, to support the prosecution's assertion that the accused committed the crime. If a person accused of murder was the beneficiary of a life insurance policy on the deceased, the prosecution might argue that greed was the motive for the killing.
Proof of motive is not required in a criminal prosecution. In determining the guilt of a criminal defendant, courts are generally not concerned with why the defendant committed the alleged crime, but whether the defendant committed the crime. However, a defendant's motive is important in other stages of a criminal case, such as police investigation and sentencing. Law enforcement personnel often consider potential motives in detecting perpetrators. Judges may consider the motives of a convicted defendant at sentencing and either increase a sentence based on avaricious motives or decrease the sentence if the defendant's motives were honorable—for example, if the accused acted in defense of a family member.
In criminal law, motive is distinct from intent. Criminal intent refers to the mental state of mind possessed by a defendant in committing a crime. With few exceptions the prosecution in a criminal case must prove that the defendant intended to commit the illegal act. The prosecution need not prove the defendant's motive. Nevertheless, prosecutors and defense attorneys alike may make an issue of motive in connection with the case.
For example, if a defendant denies commission of the crime, he may produce evidence showing that he had no motive to commit the crime and argue that the lack of motive supports the proposition that he did not commit the crime. By the same token, the prosecution may produce evidence that the defendant did have the motive to commit the crime and argue that the motive supports the proposition that the defendant committed the crime. Proof of motive, without more evidence tying a defendant to the alleged crime, is insufficient to support a conviction.
A HATE CRIME is one crime that requires proof of a certain motive. Generally, a hate crime is motivated by the defendant's belief regarding a protected status of the victim, such as the victim's religion, sex, disability, customs, or national origin. In states that prosecute hate crimes, the prosecution must prove that the defendant was motivated by animosity toward a protected status of the victim. Hate-crime laws are exceptions to the general rule that proof of motive is not required in a criminal prosecution.
In CIVIL LAW a plaintiff generally need not prove the respondent's motive in acting or failing to act. One notable exception to this general rule is the TORT of MALICIOUS PROSECUTION. In a suit for malicious prosecution, the plaintiff must prove, in part, that the respondent was motivated by malice in subjecting the plaintiff to a civil suit. The same applies for a malicious criminal prosecution.
Binder, Guyora. 2002. "The Rhetoric of Motive and Intent." Buffalo Criminal Law Review 6 (fall).
Candeub, Adam. 1994. "Motive Crimes and Other Minds." University of Pennsylvania Law Review 142 (June).
Pillsbury, Samuel H. 1990. "Evil and the Law of Murder." University of California at Davis Law Review 24.