Involuntary Manslaughter Overview
Consider the following scenario: Dan comes home to find his wife in bed with Victor. Distraught, Dan heads to a local bar to drown his sorrows. After having five drinks, Dan jumps into his car and drives down the street at twice the posted speed limit. If Dan had killed Victor in a "heat of passion" at the time he discovered the affair, then he could be charged with voluntary manslaughter. However, Dan instead accidentally hit and killed a pedestrian while driving recklessly and intoxicated -- and is now being charged with involuntary manslaughter.
Involuntary manslaughter usually refers to an unintentional killing that results from criminal negligence or recklessness, or from committing an offense such as a DUI. It differs from voluntary manslaughter in that the victim's death is unintended. The following is an overview of involuntary manslaughter and how it differs from voluntary manslaughter.
Involuntary Manslaughter: The Basics
Charges of involuntary manslaughter (sometimes called "criminally negligent homicide") often come in the wake of a deadly car crash caused by a motorist under the influence of alcohol or drugs. While the motorist never intended to kill anyone, his or her negligence in operating a vehicle while impaired is enough to meet the requirements of the charge. Some states recognize a separate class of manslaughter called vehicular manslaughter.
Involuntary manslaughter does not have to involve motor vehicles. For example, if the operator of a dangerous carnival ride fails to ensure that all passengers are strapped in and people die as a result, the operator could be prosecuted for involuntary manslaughter. A building manager who recklessly neglects to install smoke detectors before the occurrence of a deadly fire might be charged with involuntary manslaughter, too.
Involuntary manslaughter is punished less severely than other forms of homicide but still is a serious crime. Under Pennsylvania law, for example, involuntary manslaughter is charged as a first degree misdemeanor. This carries a penalty of imprisonment for up to five years; but if the act is committed by the caretaker of a child under 12, it's charged as a second degree felony (with a possible prison sentence of up to 10 years upon conviction).
Voluntary vs. Involuntary Manslaughter
While both are called manslaughter, they are extremely different. Voluntary manslaughter usually involves a killing in the heat of the moment. For instance, if Adam impulsively grabs a fire iron and fatally clobbers Bill during a sudden quarrel, the offense would likely be voluntary manslaughter. The idea is that if Adam is driven by the "heat of passion," it lessens the moral blame, so he shouldn't be charged with murder, even in the second degree.
In contrast, involuntary manslaughter concerns accidental deaths, such as traffic fatalities caused by impaired drivers. Also, it's generally considered murder, not manslaughter, to kill someone unintentionally while committing a robbery, kidnapping, or other "inherently dangerous" felony.
An example would be robbers attempting to flee from the scene of a crime who run over a pedestrian while being pursued by police officers in a high-speed chase. Even though the pedestrian's death was accidental, it would likely be charged as murder because it occurred in connection with a robbery. However, most blameworthy unintentional killings are involuntary manslaughter.
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