Involuntary Manslaughter

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 What Is Manslaughter?

Manslaughter refers to the unlawful killing of another person, that is not considered to be murder because of a surrounding or mitigating circumstance. Generally speaking, manslaughter is the charge of the prosecution when the killer did not actually plan to kill the person who died.

Manslaughter and murder are two different legal concepts when determining the defendant’s state of mind. What this means is that the defendant’s state of mind when they killed the other person is what defines the difference between murder and manslaughter charges. In this context, murder generally requires:

  • Malice;
  • Premeditation; and
  • Planning.

Alternatively, manslaughter is the unlawful killing of another human being without malice, but with either the conscious disregard for human life or recklessness and/or criminal negligence. Murder charges can be reduced to manslaughter charges due to various mitigating factors, as well as the specific circumstances that surrounded the incident that resulted in death.

There are two main types of manslaughter:

  1. Voluntary Manslaughter: Voluntary manslaughter is an act of killing that would generally be defined as murder, but the killing was committed in response to an adequate provocation. What this means is that if there was adequate provocation that resulted in the killing, the criminal charges are reduced from murder to voluntary manslaughter. Adequate provocation is defined as being anything sufficient to incite a normal person to sudden and intense passion. Generally speaking, courts most commonly accept these types of adequate provocation:
    • Conduct or act sufficient to deprive a reasonable person of their self control;
    • The provocation was what actually provoked the defendant;
    • The amount of time between the provocation and the actual killing cannot be long enough for reasonable person to cool off; and/or
    • The defendant never actually cooled off.
  2. Involuntary Manslaughter: Involuntary manslaughter refers to when a person unintentionally kills another person due to a lack of care, and will be further discussed below. In short, involuntary manslaughter generally occurs on two occasions:
    • When there is a death that can be attributed to recklessness and/or criminal negligence; and
    • From an unlawful act that is considered to be a misdemeanor, or a low-level felony. An example of this would be how in a case of vehicular manslaughter, a death occurs during a traffic violation, such as driving under the influence.

What Is Involuntary Manslaughter?

To reiterate, the two criminal charges of murder and manslaughter both consider what the defendant’s state of mind was at the time of the killing. To reiterate, the defining difference is that in most states, the defendant will be found guilty of murder if their actions were premeditated and intentional. Conversely, manslaughter would be the more appropriate criminal charge when the defendant’s unintentional actions result in the death of another human being. Evidence of mitigating factors will show that the defendant did not intend to kill the person.

Again, manslaughter can be categorized as being either involuntary or voluntary manslaughter. Voluntary manslaughter shows some element of provocation whereas involuntary manslaughter shows that the defendant failed to exercise some level of reasonable care, which resulted in the death of another person. Additionally, involuntary manslaughter is sometimes referred to as criminally negligent homicide.

The exact definition of involuntary manslaughter, as well as the elements that are needed for the prosecution to prove its case, will vary according to each state. However, the most common element of involuntary manslaughter is that the killing was accidental.

Under most circumstances, the prosecution will be required to show that the defendant’s action was grossly negligent. Generally speaking, this means that the defendant’s actions demonstrated a gross and sometimes reckless disregard for a reasonable standard of care. An example of this would be when someone kills a pedestrian while driving and texting. Another example would be when a boat operator kills a passenger while sailing drunk.

Involuntary manslaughter may be tried as a misdemeanor or a felony crime, depending on your state and the specific circumstances of the case. This designation will also dictate the severity of the penalty involved.

What Are The Elements Of An Involuntary Manslaughter Charge?

The common elements of an involuntary manslaughter charge include facts which prove the following:

  1. The defendant’s actions is what caused the death of another person;
  2. The defendant’s actions were inherently dangerous, or were done with reckless disregard; and
  3. The defendant knew, or should have known, that their actions would put the lives of another human being at risk.

It is important to note that not all of the actions that were undertaken by the defendant must be inherently dangerous in order for this specific element to be met. An example of this would be how installing a scaffolding during construction is considerably normal for those circumstances. However, if the scaffolding supervisor failed to properly secure the scaffolding, and a pedestrian walking below is killed as a result of the loose scaffolding, the supervisor could be held criminally responsible and charged with involuntary manslaughter.

What Are The Potential Legal Penalties For An Involuntary Manslaughter Charge?

The law recognizes the distinction between the mindset of those accused of involuntary manslaughter, and as such prescribes penalties that reflect a varying degree of seriousness. An example of this would be how driving your car carelessly, even if not done under the influence of alcohol, can result in the death of another person. However, many states make a distinction between that action and one in which the driver deliberately drives their car into a crowd of pedestrians.

At the federal level, sentencing guidelines for involuntary manslaughter vary according to the circumstances of the defendant’s case. An example of this would be how the 2015 federal sentencing guidelines for a base sentence for involuntary manslaughter would be 12 to 22 months spent in prison, with the higher end of the sentence imposed based on whether the defendant’s action was reckless. Additionally, the base sentence for an offense involving an automobile or boat would be 22 months.

Although many state courts refer to the federal sentencing guidelines when determining penalties for involuntary manslaughter, they will do so within their discretion. What this means is that sentences may vary considerably from state to state; additionally, courts will consider any aggravating and mitigating factors in order to decide on final penalties.

Aggravating factors are any circumstance related to the crime that somehow makes the crime itself worse. The phrase can refer to:

  • The manner in which the crime was committed;
  • The reason or motivation behind the commission of the crime; and/or
  • The tool that was used to commit the crime.

Specific aggravating factors will be based on the unique factual circumstances of your case. Other examples of the most common aggravating factors considered by a court include:

  • Evidence of your prior record, especially if it involved a similar offense;
  • The number of victims;
  • The relationship with the deceased; and
  • Any cruelty that was involved in the commission of the crime.

Mitigating factors, such as the defendant’s mental state and any relatively minor role that they played in the commission of the crime, may influence the court to order a lower sentence.

Do I Need An Attorney For An Involuntary Manslaughter Charge?

If you are facing involuntary manslaughter charges, you will need to speak with an area criminal attorney as soon as possible.

An experienced and local lawyer will be most aware of your state’s specific laws regarding the matter, and what your legal rights and options are according to those laws. Your attorney will also be able to represent you in court, as needed, and will raise any defense that is available to you.


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