elements of a crime

To secure a conviction—whether in state or federal court—the prosecution must prove “beyond a reasonable doubt,” all the “elements” of the charged crime. (In re Winship, 397 U.S. 358, 364.)

Crimes are defined by statutes (written laws). In California, most criminal statutes are in the Penal Code, Health and Safety Code, or the Vehicle Code. The elements of a crime are the different parts that are contained in the definition.

For example, California’s drunk driving law states: “It is unlawful for a person who is under the influence of any alcoholic beverage to drive a vehicle.” (Veh. Code, § 23152, subd. (a).) That means, to get a conviction for drunk driving, the prosecution needs to prove two elements:

  • The defendant was under the influence alcohol, and

  • The defendant was driving a vehicle.

All crimes can be broken up into their elements. Although drunk driving only has two elements, many crimes have five or more elements that the prosecution must prove.