Involuntary Manslaughter Overview

Involuntary manslaughter usually refers to an unintentional killing. The basis of the charge may come from criminal negligence, recklessness, or dangerous or impaired driving. It differs from murder or voluntary manslaughter because the victim's death was not intended.

When it comes to homicide offenses, involuntary manslaughter does not come to mind first. It may not conjure up an immediate image or common scenario. After all, how does one commit an involuntary homicide?

Involuntary manslaughter gets its name not from the voluntariness of the act that causes death but from the unintentional nature of the crime. In murder, someone causes the death of another person in a willful and often deliberate and premeditated act. With involuntary manslaughter charges, someone commits a voluntary act that may be unlawful but does not include a specific intent to end a human life.

Consider this scenario: Dan and his friends watch the big game at their favorite sports bar. After several drinks and a few shots, the home team secures the win, and Dan gets on the road, heading to his house a few miles down the road. He drives at twice the posted speed limit. Sadly, Dan loses control of his vehicle and causes a deadly crash. When he regains consciousness, the police officer tells him he is under arrest. He faces a charge of involuntary manslaughter related to the other motorist.

Read on for an overview of involuntary manslaughter, including definitions of the crime under state and federal law. The article will show how involuntary manslaughter differs from other homicide charges. It will also discuss possible penalties and legal defenses.

Involuntary Manslaughter: The Basics

Federal and state law definitions of involuntary manslaughter vary. So, it's a good idea to consult a criminal defense attorney who knows the law in a given case.

Under federal law, involuntary manslaughter appears at 18 U.S.C. Section 1112. The law defines the crime as an unlawful killing of another without malice that occurs:

  • In commission of an unlawful act not amounting to a felony
  • In commission in an unlawful manner, or without due caution or circumspection of a lawful act, which might produce death

The federal crime of involuntary manslaughter is punishable by up to eight years in prison, a fine, and costs. Yet, federal sentencing guidelines may call for less prison time.

Charges of involuntary manslaughter (sometimes called "criminally negligent homicide") often come in the wake of a deadly car crash caused by a motorist whose behavior is reckless or who is DUI (whether under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or both). While the driver did not intend to kill anyone, their negligence in driving while impaired is enough to meet the requirements of the charge. Some states, such as New York, recognize a separate class of manslaughter called vehicular manslaughter.

Involuntary manslaughter does not have to involve motor vehicles. For example, the operator of a dangerous carnival ride may fail to ensure that all passengers are strapped in before the ride. If someone dies as a result, the operator could face prosecution for involuntary manslaughter. An apartment building manager may neglect to install smoke detectors. After a deadly fire, police may start an inquiry for involuntary manslaughter.

These cases often turn on whether the defendant's conduct is what a reasonable person would do under the circumstances. If the defendant's actions show a reckless disregard for safety or human life, then it's more likely there will be criminal liability.

Penalties for involuntary manslaughter may be less severe than other forms of homicide. Yet, in most states, it remains a serious felony crime. Pennsylvania, however, treats the crime as a first-degree misdemeanor. This carries a possible penalty of up to five years in jail. If the perpetrator is the caretaker of a child under 12, the charge becomes a second-degree felony. The prison sentence can be up to 10 years upon conviction.

Voluntary vs. Involuntary Manslaughter

Under federal law, voluntary manslaughter describes an intentional, unlawful killing "upon sudden quarrel or heat of passion." The heat of the moment lacks the specific intent required for murder.

For example, Jack and Bert are construction workers who get into a fight at a work site. If Jack clobbers Bert with his hammer and kills him, the offense would likely be voluntary manslaughter. The concept holds that because Jack reacted to a "sudden quarrel" or the "heat of passion." In the eyes of the law, this lessens his moral blame. Thus, he would not face murder charges.

In contrast, involuntary manslaughter concerns accidental or unintentional deaths. These cases involve more than traffic fatalities caused by impaired drivers.

In the example above, think of Jack working on a scaffold above Bert. On a break, Jack drops his hammer to hear the sound it makes when it hits the floor. Bert happens to be below Jack, and the hammer strikes his head, causing a fatal blow. Whether dropping the hammer from the scaffold is an unlawful act or not, the conduct is reckless or one of criminal negligence. It is an act that can cause death at a worksite.

If the voluntary act that causes the death amounts to a felony offense in the jurisdiction at issue, then the analysis must go further. If the jurisdiction has the felony murder rule, then a crime that would otherwise sound like involuntary manslaughter may qualify for murder charges.

The felony murder rule provides that the state can pursue murder charges when another person is killed or dies during the commission or attempt to commit a qualifying felony. In most jurisdictions with this rule, the unintentional death or killing must relate to a robbery, kidnapping, or other "inherently dangerous" felony.

For example, if robbers sped away from the scene of a crime and hit and killed a pedestrian, they could be charged with murder. Even though the did not intend the pedestrian's death, the state can pursue murder charges because the death occurred in connection with the felony robbery.

States vary on whether they treat felony murder as first-degree murder or second-degree murder. Jurisdictions that place felony murder in the category of second-degree murder often do so based on the lack of premeditation.

Involuntary Manslaughter: State Law Examples

Each state sets its own involuntary manslaughter laws. This may or may not include specific laws related to vehicular manslaughter or vehicular homicide.

For example, under Nebraska statutes, involuntary manslaughter occurs when someone causes the death of another person "unintentionally while in the commission of an unlawful act." As a Class II Felony, an offender convicted of involuntary manslaughter can face up to 20 years in state prison.

Nebraska also has a separate statute on motor vehicle homicide. This crime involves causing the death of another unintentionally while engaged in the operation of a motor vehicle. The offense is a Class I misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in jail. Motor vehicle homicide can be elevated to a Class II felony when reckless driving or DUI is a proximate cause of the death.

In Ohio, the involuntary manslaughter statute has multiple parts. The first part states that the crime occurs when an offender causes the death of another as a proximate result of committing or attempting to commit a felony.

This crime is a first-degree felony, punishable by three or more years in state prison and/or a fine. The second part provides that the crime can also occur when an offender causes the death of another as a proximate result of a misdemeanor, a regulatory offense, or a minor misdemeanor other than a traffic code offense. This crime is a third-degree felony, punishable by up to 36 months in state prison and/or a fine.

Ohio's statute also includes specific outcomes in DUI cases that result in death. If the act that caused the death was a DUI, then the court must suspend the offender's driver's license and impose a mandatory prison sentence.

Some states do not provide separate crimes for voluntary and involuntary manslaughter. In Colorado, the manslaughter statute appears in Criminal Code Section 18-3-104. It provides that manslaughter occurs when someone:

  • Recklessly causes the death of another person
  • Intentionally causes or aids another person to commit suicide

Colorado treats manslaughter as a Class 4 felony. An offender may face up to six years in state prison upon conviction. In contrast to some states, Colorado places the elements of voluntary manslaughter into its second-degree murder statute.

That law prohibits knowingly killing another person under circumstances where the act causing the death "was performed upon a sudden heat of passion caused by a serious and highly provoking act of the intended victim." In such cases of provocation by the victim, the penalty for second-degree murder adjusts downward to a maximum penalty of 12 years.

Involuntary Manslaughter: Legal Defenses

Legal defenses available for involuntary manslaughter will be similar to those available for murder and voluntary manslaughter. Here are some common involuntary manslaughter defenses:

  • Accident Defense: In this defense, the defendant will focus on showing the incident was a pure accident. The defense succeeds when the state cannot show the defendant deviated from a reasonable standard of care as in cases of gross negligence. For example, the defendant driver is in a car accident where the other driver dies. The defendant was not intoxicated and did not engage in reckless behavior.
  • Self-Defense: If the death of the victim occurred during a fight, the defense will claim that the defendant used no more force than necessary to repel an attack by the victim. In states with "stand your ground" laws, the defendant may not need to retreat from a fight. For example, the defendant claims the victim started a physical fight. The defendant struck a responsive blow that caused the victim to hit his head on an object on the ground. The victim's injury turned out to be fatal.
  • Insufficient Evidence: The state always has the duty to prove each element of a crime beyond a reasonable doubt to convict. The defense may focus on a key element, such as causation or criminal negligence. They will challenge the state's evidence on this issue and seek to raise doubts on the judge's or jury's behalf. For example, consider the case where the victim dies from a head wound in a fight. The evidence shows the health care providers debated what caused the death as the victim had other life-threatening medical issues before the fight.

Involuntary Manslaughter: Other Consequences

Federal and state penal codes set forth the laws related to criminal homicide, including the possible punishments. Yet, regardless of the status of any criminal charges, the victim's family members can also bring a civil lawsuit that seeks to hold the defendant liable for the wrongful death of the victim. Often, a family waits out the criminal justice process before instigating a civil suit for money damages or other relief.

In a civil case, the plaintiff must prove their claim by a preponderance of the evidence. That is a lesser standard than the criminal case requirement for proof beyond a reasonable doubt. In any case, a criminal defendant should know that the effects of the incident may not go away with the resolution of the criminal case. It makes sense to consult with an attorney with personal injury defense experience to understand what could happen in civil court.

Get Legal Help With Your Involuntary Manslaughter Case

The killing of a human being is always tragic, no matter whether the conduct amounts to a crime or a pure accident. If you are facing criminal charges, do not wait. Speak with an experienced attorney who can help you establish a defense and protect your legal rights. Consider speaking with a local criminal defense attorney to work toward the best possible outcome. Contact a qualified criminal defense lawyer near you.

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