Legal Dictionary

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Excuse

In criminal law, an excuse (also called Legal Excuse or Excuse Defense) is a general defense applicable to all offenses. It arises because the defendant's otherwise criminal conduct is not blameworthy. An excuse is an admission that the act committed by the defendant is wrong, but a justification because conditions suggest that he or she is not responsible for the act.

Excuse defenses include:

  • Duress – If a defendant is compelled under another's threat or menace to commit a crime, believing that his life or someone else's life is in immediate danger, he or she may claim the defense of duress.
  • Entrapment – This defense may be claimed by a defendant when law enforcement induces a defendant to participate in a crime and the defendant in no way was predisposed to commit the crime.
  • Infancy – A complete defense for children under 7 years of age exists because children at that age are incapable of forming the criminal intent required for a crime. Children between the ages of 7 and 14 years of age are presumed incapable of criminal capacity but the prosecution can rebut this presumption. The infancy defense is not available to a minor over the age of 14.
  • Insanity – A defendant in California is deemed to be legally insane if at the time the crime was committed he or she had a mental disease or defect and because of that disease or defect he or she did not know or understand the nature and quality of his or her act or did not know or understand that his or her act was morally or legally wrong. For example, if a criminally insane person is charged with murder, and he successfully proves an insanity defense, he will not be convicted for the murder – his insanity is his excuse. A successful insanity defense does not lead to an acquittal but instead to a special verdict (“not guilty by reason of insanity') that results in a defendant's commitment to a mental institution.
  • Intoxication – Voluntary or involuntary intoxication is a defense to a crime when it negates the existence of an element of the crime. Involuntary intoxication which is not self-induced and is pathological is a full defense to a crime. Voluntary intoxication is not a full defense but can negate the specific intent required to carry out the crime.
  • Diminished Capacity – Some jurisdictions allow the defense of diminished capacity (also termed diminished responsibility), which is an impaired mental condition--short of insanity--to prove that as a result of the impaired mental condition (mental defect) the defendant did not have the state of mind, which is an element of the offense. In other words, the diminished capacity defense is used to negate a specific mental state required for a particular crime.
  • Consent – Consent is not a defense to a crime. Consent is only a defense to a crime when “lack of consent” is an element of the offense.

See and compare to Justification Defenses.