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Intent

Criminal intention is usually an ingredient of crimes committed.  Bigamy is a misdemeanor.  The question whether bigamy can be proved only if there is an intention to commit the offense is answered by the U.S. courts that intention is immaterial in bigamy[i]. Mostly the defense that arises in a bigamy case is that the accused had no intention to commit the offense because s/he bonafidely believed that the former marriage was terminated.  This defense is not accepted in U.S. courts because the intention of the accused is not an essential ingredient in bigamy offense.

Courts in the U.S. reason that bigamy is a statutory offense.  When the legislature has not introduced the element of intention in the offense of bigamy the courts have no right to decide the cases based on the intention of accused[ii]. In most states, courts have held that guilty intention is presumed when second marriage is solemnized.

Statutes have provided exceptional situations where intention to commit bigamy cannot be presumed.  These circumstances are:

  • when a person’s former spouse was not known to be alive for a period of time prescribed in statutes[iii], or
  • when a person has obtained a valid divorce.

Courts also reason that intent is immaterial because of public policy.  If the courts allow the defense of lack of intention, various complications can arise from the protection of two separate marriages by the same person.

Generally, whenever a person does an act voluntarily it is presumed that the person intends to do it.  If a statute has provided that voluntarily committing a certain act is a crime, person voluntarily committing that act can be presumed to commit the act with an intention to commit the crime[iv].

However, the policy that intent is immaterial in a bigamy prosecution is not generally accepted.  Some courts have opined that wrongful intent is an essential element of the offense of bigamy.  In circumstances where a person marries another person bonafidely believing termination of a first marriage intention of that person can be taken into account[v].

[i] State v. De Meo, 20 N.J. 1 (N.J. 1955)

[ii] State v. Sherwood, 68 Vt. 414 (Vt. 1896)

[iii] Baker v. State, 86 Neb. 775 (Neb. 1910)

[iv] United States v. Chiantese, 560 F.2d 1244 (5th Cir. Fla. 1977)

[v] State v. Seek, 109 Wn. App. 876 (Wash. Ct. App. 2002)


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