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The National Trial Lawyers
Greater Lowell Bar Association

Transferred Intent

Most violent crimes in Massachusetts require that the defendant intended to cause harm to the victim. For example, in an assault and battery case, the defendant must intentionally touch the victim without the victim’s consent. In a murder case, the defendant must intentionally commit some act that results in the victim’s death. But what happens if the defendant intends to cause harm to the victim, but unintentionally hurts someone else? Maybe the defendant fired his gun at a rival gang member but accidentally shot and killed an innocent bystander. Or maybe the defendant was involved in a bar fight and when he swung his fist at the person standing in front of him (the intended target), he missed and accidentally hit the bartender. Are these defendants innocent of the violent crimes they intended to commit because the intended victims were not injured? Probably not. Massachusetts law recognizes the legal principle of transferred intent. Under this theory, where “the intent follows the bullet,” the person who accidentally shoots the wrong person will be guilty of murder, and the bar brawler who accidentally hits the bartender will be guilty of assault and battery. A fair question is why does the defense of accident not save the defendant from a conviction? Because an accident is defined as an unexpected happened that was not the result of any plan by the defendant (for example, a person slips on a banana peel and while falling down accidentally strikes the person standing next to him). In transferred intent cases, the defendant is guilty of a criminal intent, but was unsuccessful in executing his plan.

Transferred intent prosecutions may involve a much larger number of victims than the single victim the defendant intended to injure. For example, the Supreme Judicial Court concluded that a defendant who fired a single bullet into a car containing four passengers could be convicted of four counts of assault with a dangerous weapon. The defendant had argued that in shooting just one bullet, he could not have possibly intended to commit a battery on all four of the victims. But the Court ruled that when the defendant committed an intentional act of violence toward one person, any other person who was victimized could form the basis for a separate prosecution.

The Massachusetts Appeals Court has ruled the transferred intent principle does not apply only to physically violent crimes. In a 2018 case, a juvenile defendant attempted to scare another teenager by brandishing a knife (which constitutes an assault with a dangerous weapon). Multiple other teenagers saw the knife and became scared, and the defendant was charged with assault with a dangerous weapon against every teen who saw the knife. The defendant argued he could not be convicted of assault with a dangerous weapon against anyone other than the intended victim, but the Appeals Court said the transferred intent doctrine allows for independent prosecutions for any person who was placed in fear after seeing the knife, whether the defendant intended to scare them or not. The Court wrote, “[i]t would make little sense to allow the perpetrator of an assault against one victim to escape conviction with regard to the victim’s immediate companions, who, because of proximity to the intended victim, also feared an immediate battery.”

How are transferred intent cases defended? By identifying whether there is an affirmative defense for the conduct the defendant intended. For example, if the defendant attempted to shoot someone in self-defense and he accidentally shot someone else, he can assert self-defense in the transferred intent prosecution. Other common defenses to violent crimes (such as defense of another person and accident) are also available in transferred intent cases as long as they would have been available if the defendant had injured the intended target.

If you are charged with a violent crime under a transferred intent theory, you should immediately contact experienced criminal Attorney Chris Spring to schedule a free consultation.

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