As a legal term, “recklessness” is often associated with negligence cases and personal injury law. In personal injury law, negligence is acting in a careless manner, whereas recklessness involves a person engaging in some act with the knowledge that it creates a risk of harming someone. Recklessness is a more serious degree of carelessness.

Recklessness is also used in criminal law to describe the specific state of mind that a perpetrator must have to be guilty of certain defined crimes.

What Is Criminal Recklessness?

Criminal recklessness refers to a particular mens rea, which is a Latin term for “state of mind”. For certain crimes, the law requires that the perpetrator have a particular state of mind, or intent, when the crime was committed in order to be found guilty. Recklessness is a state of mind in which the perpetrator knows and foresees that their conduct risks causing harm but consciously decides to act regardless of the risk.

For example, a driver knows that speeding along a residential street creates the risk of an accident in which someone may be injured. However, if they ignore the risks, i.e., causing a car accident or striking a pedestrian, and choose to speed down the residential street anyway, they are acting with criminal recklessness.

Is Criminal Recklessness the Same as Criminal Negligence?

Criminal negligence is defined as conduct that grossly deviates from the reasonable standards of the average, ordinary person. Criminal negligence is usually defined as a complete disregard for human life. Criminal recklessness is based on a perpetrator knowing that their actions pose a great risk of harm. The concepts are close in meaning and in any given situation, much would depend on the particular definition of a crime according to the law in the state in which the crime is charged.

A perpetrator whose conduct rises to the level of criminal recklessness exhibits a complete disregard for the risk they create by continuing to perform the action. Different states may define “criminal negligence” and “criminal recklessness” in somewhat different ways, but the basic concept is the same; the perpetrator understands that they are creating a significant risk of great injury to another person, but they go forward without regard for that risk.

The state of Texas offers definitions of “criminal negligence” and “recklessness” as two terms that refer to the mental state of the perpetrator of a crime. The perpetrator who is criminally negligent should be aware of the substantial and unjustifiable risk created by their conduct. The perpetrator who is reckless subjectively knows about the risk and chooses to disregard it. Recklessness is considered more culpable than criminal negligence.

Is Reckless Endangerment a Type of Criminal Recklessness?

The crime of reckless endangerment is defined as acting in such a way as to create a serious risk of physical injury to other people. The type of conduct that demonstrates recklessness would include such things as driving well above the posted speed limit or shooting a gun in circumstances in which the bullet is likely to strike a person. The perpetrator shows that they do not care about the risks involved and perform the action anyway.

For example, child endangerment is a crime in which the health and safety of a child is put at risk because of an adult’s actions. The crime of child endangerment can consist of an act or a failure to act. Examples of child endangerment would be any conduct that creates a threat to a child’s physical, mental, or emotional wellbeing. Child abuse that is the result of child endangerment is typically charged as a misdemeanor criminal offense, though abuse that results in serious mental or physical injury could be charged as a felony in many states.

In terms of recklessness, the key factor is that the perpetrator acted or behaved in a way that exposed others to a substantial risk of severe physical injury.

For example, under New York’s penal code, “reckless” behavior is defined as a criminal act or conduct that involves the following:

  • It creates an unjustifiable risk of serious physical injury to another person;
  • The perpetrator is aware that the act exposes others to serious risk and does it anyways;
  • It constitutes a significant deviation from the standard of conduct of a reasonable person.

The New York reckless endangerment law then defines physical injury as any of the following:

  • The complete loss or lengthy impairment of the function of any bodily organ;
  • Any lengthy impairment of a person’s health;
  • Long-lasting and serious physical disfigurement;
  • Injury to a person’s physical condition which creates a substantial risk of death or causes death.

Some states do not have a specific crime known as “reckless endangerment.” Rather, if other crimes are committed with reckless indifference or in a way that exhibits reckless endangerment, it is a factor that can qualify the crime for more severe criminal punishment.

For example, California does not have a specific crime called “reckless endangerment”, but punishment is enhanced for perpetrators who act recklessly in the commission of the crime with which they are charged.

Some of the crimes that can be “enhanced” for reckless endangerment in California include:

  • Driving while intoxicated with a child passenger under 14 years old;
  • Child endangerment;
  • Elder abuse;
  • Reckless driving;
  • Brandishing a firearm or deadly weapon.

Again, if a perpetrator acted recklessly in the course of their criminal conduct, then they may suffer harsher punishments such as increased fines and lengthier prison sentences. A misdemeanor offense can become a felony, if the prosecution proves that the perpetrator recklessly endangered another person.

Other examples of acts that could be seen as showing reckless endangerment would be such conduct as the following:

  • Shooting a gun in the backyard to show off at a party;
  • Slashing the tires of a motor vehicle;
  • Leaving a loaded weapon where a child can access it;
  • Leaving a child home alone;
  • Failing to give medication to an elderly person;
  • Leaving a child in a locked car on a hot day;
  • Street racing;
  • Texting while driving;
  • Not disclosing STDs to a sexual partner.

Mississippi is another state in which there is no stand-alone crime of reckless endangerment. It is, however, an element of a number of other crimes in Mississippi. As noted above, it involves a perpetrator who creates a substantial risk of injury to others coupled with a lack of concern on the part of the perpetrator.

Again, this is a matter of state law and every state has its own definitions of crimes and factors that can enhance criminal charges and result in harsher penalties. So a person who has been charged with reckless endangerment or with recklessness as an aggravating factor as part of another crime would want to consult with an experienced criminal defense lawyer who knows the criminal law in the state in which a person has been charged.

Do I Need a Criminal Defense Lawyer?

If you have been charged with criminal recklessness or some other crime that has been enhanced by an allegation of recklessness, you should consult a criminal defense lawyer. The lawyer will analyze the facts of your case and knows the law in your state. Your lawyer can explain what defenses are available to you and how you can defend against increased penalties for criminal recklessness.