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Definition of Crime

The transient nature of crime makes it very difficult to derive any precise definition of the term.  In spite of the attempts made by various jurists, a satisfactory definition of crime has not been achieved.

Literal Meaning of Crime:

The word ―Crime‖ was originally taken from a Latin term ―Crimen‖ which means ―to charge‖.  The Greek expression ―Krimos‖ is synonymous to a Sanskrit word ‗Krama‘ which means ―Social order‖.  Therefore, in common parlance the word crime is applied to those acts that go against social order and are worthy of serious condemnation.

General Meaning of Crime:

The Oxford English Dictionary defines crime as ―an act punishable by law as forbidden by statute or injurious to public welfare‖.  It is a very wide definition including many things in the present day complex society.  Any act like selling adulterated food, molestation of women or young children in buses and railways, misleading advertisements can be said to be injurious to public welfare.  It is too wide a definition and fails to precisely identify the thing it purports to define.  Though there is no precise definition for crime, we can still have an understanding of the word by examining different definitions put forward by different jurists.

Crime is a ―Public Wrong‖—Blackstone:

Blackstone, (1968) has defined crime as an act committed or omitted in violation of a public law either forbidding or commanding it”. Thus, according to Blackstone crime is an act in violation of public law.  But what is ‗public law‘?  It has several accepted meanings.  According to Austin, (yrar) public law is identical with ―Constitutional law‖.  This being so, the crime would then mean an act done in violation of Constitutional law.  The definition would thus cover only political crimes namely crimes against the state, and crimes like arbitrary deprivation of life, personal liberty and property, leaving aside a vast area of other criminal behavior.  Germans interpret public law to include both constitutional law and criminal law.  As we have already seen, it is fallacious to define crime with the help of constitutional law.  And it would be meaningless to define crime using the expression ―criminal law‖. It would rather amount to arguing in a circle. What is a crime? – Violation of criminal law.  What is criminal law? -The law that deals with

―Crimes‖.  In this sense also Blackstone‘s definition fails to define crime satisfactorily.  There is yet another accepted meaning of public law given by

Kenny, (year) According to him, public law means all ―positive law‖ or ―municipal law‖ which means ―any law made by the state‖.  Then crime would mean an act done in violation of all positive law which is not true for many acts though done in breach of law are not crimes.  Thus it may be said that, whatever meaning we attach to the expression ―public law‖, the definition of Blackstone proves unsatisfactory.

Blackstone, (year) perhaps visualizing the inadequacy of his first definition of crime tried to give a modified definition and said, ―A crime is a violation of the public rights and duties due to the whole community, considered as a community in its social aggregate capacity”.

The second definition of Blackstone proceeds in terms of ―public rights and duties‖ replacing the phrase ―public law‖.  In fact even this definition is not without error.  In addition to that Stephen, while editing Blackstone‘s Commentaries committed further error as he slightly modified the definition and reconstructed it in the following words: “A crime is a violation of a right, considered in reference to the evil tendency of such violation as regards the community at large.”

Stephen (year) committed two errors in modifying Blackstone‘s second definition:

  1. He dropped the word ‗duties‘ from Blackstone‘s definition narrowing down the scope of crime to the violation of rights only, whereas criminal law fastens criminal liability even on those persons who omit to perform duty required by law, for example, failure to report the preparation or commission of an crime (Art. 39 & 443 of the Criminal Code) failure to appear before courts as a witness or an accused person (Art.448 of the Criminal Code) a parent‘s gross neglect in bringing up a child (Art. 659 of the Criminal Code), failure to provide the maintenance allowances stipulated under (Art. 658 of the Criminal Code), etc.

Similarly, are other acts, which do not violate any one‘s right but are nevertheless crimes, e.g., being in possession of arms and ammunition, (Art.808 of the Criminal Code) carrying of prohibited arms (Art. 809 of the Criminal Code).

However, all the acts that are injurious to the community are not necessarily crimes. 

Even transactions of civil nature can injure community.  For example, where the Directors of a company fail to manage its affairs properly, the mill is closed, workers are rendered unemployed, production of a commodity essential for the society is stopped—will it not be an act which is injurious to the society?  But can we prosecute the Directors for any crime?    The answer to this will probably be


Thus, as has been rightly pointed out by Kenny, ―it is possible that, without committing any crime at all, a man may by breach of trust or by negligent mismanagement of a company‘s affairs, bring about a calamity incomparably more wide spread and more severe than that produced by stealing a cotton pocket handkerchief, though that petty theft is a crime.‖  Therefore, to define crimes as those breaches of law which injure the community is not completely true. 

CRIME is A ―Moral wrong‖ – Stephen:

According to Stephen (year) crime is ―an act forbidden by law and which is at the same time revolting to the moral sentiments of the society‖.  Defining crime, as something against the moral sentiments cannot be accepted because there are acts though not immoral, classified as highly criminal, e.g., Treason i.e.  ‗anything done to displace the governing body of state.‘  Treason is graded as a crime in the highest degree and considered as a heinous crime by all Penal Codes.  This is not because the moral sentiments of the society are being affected but for the security and stability of the government.  Similarly, there are acts, which are highly immoral but not criminal. For example, an expert swimmer stands by the side of a river and sees a child drowning in the river and makes no effort to save the child and the child dies by drowning.  His act may be highly immoral but it is neither a criminal nor a civil wrong. 

Crime is A ―Procedural Wrong‖ –John Austin: 

Austin (year) and some writers (e.g.…) define crime in terms of the proceedings adopted in such cases.  Austin defined crime while making a distinction between civil and criminal wrongs.  He observed, ―A wrong which is pursued by the sovereign or his subordinates is a crime.  A wrong which is pursued at the discretion of the injured party and his representatives is a civil injury‖.

The definition does not explain a number of crimes under the Criminal Code in which the prosecution could be initiated only at the instance of injured party as is done in the case of civil wrongs.  For example, in case of Adultery (Art. 618 Criminal Code) no court shall take cognizance of the crime except on a complaint made by the injured spouse (Art 13 Cr. P. C). Thus, even Austin‘s definition of crime in terms of procedural wrong also is not without defect.

Crime is a ―Creation of Government Policy‖:

‗Russell‘ has rightly observed that, ―to define crime is a task which has so far not been satisfactorily accomplished by any writer.  In fact, criminal offences are basically the creation of a criminal policy adopted from time to time by those sections of the community who are powerful or astute enough to safeguard their own security and comfort by causing sovereign power in the state to repress conduct which they feel may endanger their position‖. We find ample evidences supporting the observation made by some of these are Kenny‘s ―Outlines of

Criminal Law‖ (1966, 19th ed., by J.W. Cecil Turner, Cambridge University Press, UK) brings out the following examples in this regard. 

In the first place, as the history of the early Roman law reveals, an offensive conduct may become recognized as a crime as a result of the combined effect of a number of different social forces.  For instance, in a primitive monarchy or Oligarchy when all nominal state power rested in the hands of a personal sovereign or a small group of men, anything done in the nature of an attempt to displace the governing body was classed as “Treason‖ and such   behavior is criminal in the highest degree.  Such an attempt would be repressed by all means available to the ruling element.  The person who commits treason is called a traitor; and any one who slew him was held guiltless.

Another example is that of the English Law of Outlawry.  The ancient city-states of

Europe depended largely on the strength and construction of their ―City Walls‖.  For this reason erecting private buildings near the City Walls was prohibited since these might hinder the movements of defending troops within the city walls and offer cover to approaching enemies from outside.  The maintenance of these walls in a state of efficiency was so important that at Rome religious superstition was invoked for their protection and they were classed as ―res sanctae‖ (things sacred).  It was a capital offence to harm them or even to climb over them to enter the city instead of coming through the gates in the proper way.

Different social forces and impulses affected the development of law everywhere.  Such forces varied from the legislative power of the dictator to the unidentified pressure of public opinion.  An illustration of the dictator‘s power bringing a change in the law is of Emperor Claudius for his private purposes.  Desirous of marrying his brother‘s daughter Aggrippina, he brought a change in the ‗law of incest‘, permitting marriage between a niece and her uncle leaving the rest of the law relating to such prohibited marriages i.e. between uncles and nieces or aunts and nephews incestuous.

Therefore, Kenny (year) opined that, so long as crimes continue to be created by the government policy, it was difficult to give a true definition of the nature of crime.  Hence, he resorted to broadly describing a crime as he realized that it is nearly impossible to give a scientific definition of crime.  While doing so, he kept in view an all-important aspect of the matter i.e. ―the controlling power of the state with regard to criminal prosecution is an undeniable fact‖.  According to him ―Crime‖ has the following three characteristics:

  1. A crime is a harm brought about by human conduct, which the sovereign power in the state desires to prevent,
  2. Among the measures of prevention there is threat of punishment,
  3. Legal proceedings of special kind (criminal proceedings) are employed to decide whether the person accused did in fact cause the harm and is according to law to be held legally punishable for doing so.

Crime Is A ―Legal Wrong‖:

Since no satisfactory definition of crime acceptable and applicable to all situations could be derived, penal statutes define, specifically, different criminal behaviors, which they purport to check.  Even the Criminal Code of FDRE, 2005, which has codified the great bulk of the criminal law of the country, does not give any standard definition of crime.  Art. 23(1) simply states that, 

A crime is an act which is prohibited and madepunishable by law.

In this Code, an act consists of the commission of what is prohibited or

omission of what is prescribed by law.”

This provision is nothing but a statement of fact, which is made for the purposes of the Code, and cannot be regarded as a definition of crime. It refers to the specific kinds of conduct prohibited under the Special Part of the Code.

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