The state will pursue involuntary manslaughter charges when someone unintentionally kills another person. Unlike murder, involuntary manslaughter does not intend to kill another individual or cause serious bodily harm. Involuntary manslaughter is also referred to as unintentional homicide. Involuntary manslaughter includes drunk driving deaths and the accidental discharge of a firearm that results in the death of another. Further, deaths in medical malpractice cases are also involuntary manslaughter cases.
Involuntary manslaughter is a criminal offense. Convictions result in significant penalties. You can challenge the charges and have them reduced or dismissed. We at Chula Vista Criminal Attorney can assist you in this endeavor. Here is a look at involuntary manslaughter under California law.
Legal Definition of Involuntary Manslaughter
You commit a Penal Code 192(b) violation, involuntary manslaughter, when you cause the death of another person without malice aforethought, either by:
- Committing an unlawful act that is not inherently dangerous — Occurs when you commit an illegal act that is not innately dangerous but results in the death of another person. For example, accidentally discharging a firearm and killing another, or
- Committing a lawful act likely to cause death or great bodily harm — You engage in a legal action in a way likely to cause death or significant physical injury. This is likely when an individual drives a car at a high rate of speed and causes a fatal accident.
Elements of the Crime
PC 192(b) requires prosecutors to prove the elements below to secure a conviction:
- You committed an act that caused the death of another person
- Your actions were either unlawful, or
- If lawful, you acted in a way likely to cause great bodily harm, or another’s death
- You acted without malice aforethought — Malice aforethought refers to the intent to kill or cause serious bodily harm to another person.
You cannot be convicted of involuntary manslaughter if the prosecutor cannot prove these elements beyond a reasonable doubt.
a) Involuntary Manslaughter Resulting from a Legal Obligation
Involuntary manslaughter based on legal duty occurs when a person has a legal obligation to act but fails to do so, and another person dies. This type of involuntary manslaughter is also known as criminal negligence.
For example, if a child dies because the parent failed to provide necessary medical care, the parent could face involuntary manslaughter charges based on legal duty.
Similarly, if a swimmer drowns because a lifeguard failed to adequately monitor swimmers in a pool, the lifeguard will be charged with involuntary manslaughter based on his/her legal duty.
The state must prove the following elements to be accurate:
- You had a legal duty to act.
- You breached that legal duty by failing to act or by acting negligently.
- Your breach of duty was a substantial factor in causing the victim's death.
- Your conduct was criminally negligent — Conduct that is a gross deviation from the standard of care that a reasonable person would exercise in similar circumstances.
b) Involuntary Manslaughter When An Individual is Engaged in a Lawful Act Likely to Cause Death
Death based on committing a lawful act likely to cause death or great bodily harm occurs when someone acts within the law. However, his/her actions should potentially result in death or grave injury to another.
For example, a driver unintentionally caused a fatal accident while driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs. In this case, the driver committed a lawful act, that is, driving. However, he acted in a way likely to cause death or great bodily harm by driving under the influence. If the accident resulted in the death of another person, the driver could be charged with involuntary manslaughter.
The elements the state must establish under this section are:
- You were engaged in a lawful act,
- Your actions were so reckless or negligent. Additionally, they created a high risk of death or serious bodily injury to others.
The prosecution does not need to prove that you intended to cause harm. He/she only needs to establish that your actions were criminally negligent.
Defense Strategies in Involuntary Manslaughter Cases
You have several defenses you can raise in an involuntary manslaughter case. The defense strategy depends on the facts of your case. An experienced criminal defense attorney can guide you and help you settle on the most effective defense strategy. Some potential defenses to a charge of involuntary manslaughter could include: the following:
a) Self-defense or Defense of Others
Asserting self-defense or acting in defense of others requires meeting specific legal criteria.
Acting in self-defense requires the use of force. The use of force is only acceptable if the following circumstances are true:
- You reasonably believed that you or a third party was in imminent danger of being killed or suffering significant bodily injury.
- You reasonably believed that using force was necessary to prevent that harm.
- The amount of force used was reasonable under the circumstances.
If you can establish these elements, a jury could return a not-guilty verdict. If you used unjustified deadly force, you could be found guilty of involuntary manslaughter or murder, depending on the circumstances. The outcome of this defense will depend on the specific facts of your case.
b) The Killing Was an Accident
Accidental killings lack the intent to inflict harm on another individual. Further, the defendant’s actions also lack criminal negligence.
Criminal negligence means that you acted with reckless disregard for human life. This action is established when prosecutors show that you knew or should have known that your actions posed a risk of harm to others. You nonetheless ignored that risk. If the prosecution can establish that you acted with criminal negligence, this defense could not be successful.
Your attorney will demonstrate that the death was accidental. Thus, you did not intend to cause harm. For example, if the death resulted from a tragic accident like a car or workplace accident, you could argue that you did not act with criminal negligence. Your attorney will also assert that the death was not your fault.
Note: This defense is not applicable in all cases. You could not claim the killing was accidental if you engaged in reckless or dangerous behavior. For example, driving while under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Impaired driving will be enough to convince the jury of your guilt.
c) Lack of Legal Duty
If you had a legal responsibility to ensure the victim’s safety, you would be held liable should the victim die because of your actions. Prosecutors must prove that this legal duty existed. Failure to which you are not guilty of the offense.
For example, consider a caregiver in a nursing home. The caregiver is legally obligated to provide adequate care and supervision to prevent harm to the facility’s residents. A jury will likely convict if any resident dies because of an injury resulting from the caregiver’s failure to provide adequate care.
In contrast, a jury is not likely to convict if you do not have a legal duty to prevent harm to the victim. For example, if you witness someone in danger, you do not have any legal obligation to assist. You cannot be held criminally liable for failing to act.
d) Lack of Causation
Prosecutors must establish a direct link between your actions and the victim’s death. You could cite the lack of causation if your actions did not directly cause the victim's death. If successful, a jury will not hold you criminally liable for involuntary manslaughter.
For example, medical complications, death from injuries sustained in a fall, or death by old age are unrelated to a defendant's actions. Thus, a defendant is not guilty if these are the prevailing circumstances.
Honor is on you as the defendant to provide evidence that you did not cause the victim's death. You could demonstrate that other factors account for the death.
e) The Insanity Defense
Defendants could plead not guilty by reason of insanity. However, they should have suffered a mental illness or defect when committing the crime. A mental condition or defect prevents individuals from understanding the nature and consequences of their actions or distinguishing right from wrong.
You must prove that you were legally insane. You accomplish this through a preponderance of the evidence. This means that you must show that you could not comprehend the nature and consequences of your actions due to your mental illness or defect. Neither could you distinguish right from wrong.
If the defense of insanity is successful, a jury will find you not guilty by reason of insanity. You will be committed to a mental health facility for treatment instead of serving a prison sentence.
Note: This defense is difficult to establish. Consult with your attorney to evaluate the probability of its success.
f) There is Insufficient Evidence to Convict You
A criminal defense attorney could challenge a prosecutor's case for insufficient evidence at any stage of the criminal process. It can be before a trial, during the trial, or even after a conviction. However, the most common time defense attorneys raise this issue is during pre-trial motions. He/she can file a motion to dismiss or suppress evidence. Defense attorneys could argue that the prosecutor lacks the necessary evidence. Therefore, they are unlikely to meet the burden of proof required to proceed with the case.
The defense attorney could cite factors including:
- Inconsistencies in witness statements
- Lack of physical evidence, or
- The inability to establish a clear motive or intent for the alleged crime
The judge will decide whether the evidence is sufficient to proceed with the case. You will be acquitted if the judge agrees with your attorney’s arguments.
g) You Were Falsely Accused or Wrongfully Arrested
You can assert your innocence based on a lack of probable cause or due process violations. This defense applies if you believe you were falsely accused or wrongfully arrested for involuntary manslaughter.
Probable cause is the legal standard law enforcement must meet to make an arrest or conduct a search or seizure. Your attorney will challenge the admissibility of that evidence and will argue for the charges to be dismissed if:
- There was no probable cause for your arrest or
- Officers obtained through an unlawful search or seizure
In addition, your attorney should present evidence and arguments to show that the allegations against you are untrue or lack credibility. This could require investigating the circumstances surrounding the incident and calling into question the testimony of witnesses or other evidence presented by the prosecution.
Penalties for a PC 192(b) Violation
Involuntary manslaughter is a felony offense. If convicted, you could face the following penalties:
- Felony probation or two, three, or four years in jail and
- A fine of up to $10,000
Note: The penalties become more severe if the victim is a peace officer. Additionally, if you have a prior criminal record, the penalties could also increase.
The law allows surviving family members of the victim to seek compensation in a civil suit against the offender. It is worth noting that civil proceedings are separate from and independent of criminal proceedings. This means that the outcome of a criminal proceeding has no bearing on a civil trial or vice versa.
Family members seek compensation for the loss of their loved ones. The courts will award damages to cover any medical expenses incurred to treat the injuries the victim suffered prior to dying. Additionally, the compensation caters to the loss of consortium and financial support occasioned by the victim's demise. A jury could also award compensation for the emotional distress caused by the death.
Offenses Related to Involuntary Manslaughter
- Murder — A PC 187 violation
- Voluntary manslaughter — A PC 192(a) violation
- Vehicular manslaughter — A Penal Code 192(c) violation
- Vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated — A Penal Code 191.5 violation
Penal Code 187 defines murder as the wrongful killing of a human being with malice aforethought. Malice aforethought can be either express or implied.
When someone intends to kill someone, they are acting with express malice. On the other hand, implied malice exists when a person engages in intentional and inherently dangerous acts. Alternatively, he/she should act with a conscious disregard for the risk to human life. Both expressions of express or implied malice should result in another person's demise.
Murder is classified into two categories:
- First-degree murder and
- Second-degree murder
First-degree murder is intentionally killing another person with premeditation and deliberation or under certain specified circumstances. These circumstances include murder committed during the commission of specific felonies like robbery, kidnapping, or arson.
Second-degree murder is the unlawful killing of another with malice aforethought. However, this killing lacks premeditation, deliberation, or the specific intent to kill.
Penalties for Murder
The penalties for murder can be severe. A conviction could result in imprisonment for:
- 25 years to life without the possibility of parole if convicted of first-degree murder, and
- 15 years to life if convicted of second-degree murder
b) Voluntary Manslaughter
Under Penal Code 192(a), voluntary manslaughter is the unlawful killing of a human without malice aforethought but with the intent to kill or in the heat of passion.
Voluntary manslaughter differs from murder in that it lacks malice aforethought. This means that the killer does not deliberately intend to kill the victim. However, voluntary manslaughter does involve the intentional killing of another person. It differs from involuntary manslaughter because involuntary manslaughter involves an unintentional killing.
Elements Prosecutor Must Prove
Prosecutors must demonstrate the following elements beyond a reasonable doubt:
- You caused the death of another person — Prosecutors must establish that you were the direct cause of the victim's death. He/she could present evidence of you using a weapon, engaging in physical violence, or otherwise causing the victim's death.
- You acted in the heat of passion, which was brought on by adequate provocation — Under this, prosecutors must demonstrate that you were provoked in a manner that would cause a reasonable person to lose control and act impulsively. Sufficient provocation could include physical assault, witnessing an act of infidelity, or a threat to one's safety.
- You did not have a cooling off period between the provocation and the killing — Prosecutors should show that you did not have time to cool off between the provocation and the killing. If you had a reasonable opportunity to regain composure and reflect on the situation, the heat of passion defense does not apply.
Penalties for Voluntary Manslaughter
Voluntary manslaughter is a felony violation. Convictions result in the following penalties.
- Imprisonment for 3, 6, or 11 years in a state prison or formal probation
- A fine of up to $10,000
- A strike on your criminal record per California’s Three Strikes law
c) Vehicular Manslaughter
Penal Code 192(c) makes it a crime to unintentionally kill a person while unlawfully or lawfully but recklessly driving a vehicle. The following are examples of unlawful driving:
- Driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or
- Driving with gross negligence or disregard for the safety of others
Lawful but reckless driving includes, but is not limited to:
- Driving at an excessive speed or
- Engaging in other dangerous driving behaviors that pose a high risk of harm to others.
You are only guilty of involuntary vehicular manslaughter if the prosecution proves that you:
- Were driving a vehicle at the time of the incident
- Acted with gross negligence while driving the car
- Your gross negligence was a substantial factor in causing the death of another person.
Gross negligence, in this context, refers to:
- A reckless disregard for the safety of others
- Demonstrating a conscious and
- Voluntary disregard of the need to use reasonable care while driving
Put differently, it is more than just ordinary negligence, which is the failure to exercise the level of care that a reasonable person would use in similar circumstances.
Penalties if Convicted of Vehicular Manslaughter
There are different degrees of vehicular manslaughter. The punishment for each degree depends on the case's specific circumstances.
- Vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence (Penal Code section 192(c)(1)) — An individual commits this crime when he/she drives with gross negligence. This means he/she disregarded the safety of others and caused the death of another person.
A PC 192(c)(1) violation is a felony. If convicted, you could face 4, 6, or 10 years in state prison, depending on the facts of the case.
- Vehicular manslaughter while committing an unlawful act (Penal Code section 192(c)(2)) — This offense occurs when a person causes the death of another person while committing an unlawful act, not amounting to a felony, and without gross negligence.
This violation is a wobbler. You can face felony or misdemeanor charges, depending on the facts of the case. If charged as a felony, it carries a sentence of 2, 4, or 6 years in state prison. If charged as a misdemeanor, it results in up to one year in county jail.
d) Vehicular Manslaughter While Intoxicated
PC 191.5 defines vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated as the unlawful killing of a person in a vehicle collision while the driver is under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
Prosecutors must prove that:
- You were under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time of the crash
- The intoxication caused the death of another person, and
- You acted with gross negligence
Gross negligence refers to a level of recklessness that demonstrates a complete disregard for human life or safety. Gross negligence includes driving on the wrong side of the road, driving at excessive speeds, or engaging in other dangerous driving behaviors.
The penalties for vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated can be severe. They include imprisonment in state prison for up to 10 years. However, the actual penalty can vary depending on the specific facts of the case, like whether you have prior DUI convictions or caused additional injuries.
Contact a Criminal Defense Attorney Near Me
Involuntary manslaughter is a serious crime. The potential consequences if convicted are life-changing. Therefore, contact an attorney immediately if you or a loved one is facing these charges. An experienced attorney’s guidance is pivotal in determining the best legal outcome. The combined experience of the Chula Vista Criminal Attorney team is what you need. We can help protect your rights and mount an effective defense. Contact us today at 619-877-6894 for more information.