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Involuntary manslaughter is a type of homicide, the umbrella term for any crime in which a person’s actions take a human life. Typically, a defendant gets an involuntary manslaughter charge if the death was an accident—the result of acting negligently and causing an otherwise preventable death had the defendant acted with an expected and necessary level of care.

Courts across the country vary widely in how they define and subcategorize involuntary manslaughter. Knowing exactly how your actions might apply to specific degrees of manslaughter will impact your defense strategy.

What is the Difference Between Voluntary and Involuntary Manslaughter?

Manslaughter charges, unlike murder charges, may apply when a person kills someone without premeditation or the intent to kill. Depending on the jurisdiction, it may be further categorized as manslaughter and negligent homicide, or voluntary manslaughter and involuntary manslaughter. Some courts may also refer to involuntary manslaughter as third-degree murder.

Voluntary manslaughter often encompasses what the courts call “heat of passion” homicide. In states that make a distinction between degrees of manslaughter, this is often called first-degree manslaughter. If a defendant was adequately provoked, but not for a qualifying justification like self-defense, they may still be guilty of an intentional criminal offense while in a state of diminished capacity.

An accidental death that occurs while the defendant is in the process of committing an unrelated misdemeanor could also fall under a voluntary manslaughter charge, even if the homicide would otherwise be classified as involuntary manslaughter. The fact that someone was killed because the defendant was willingly committing another crime can enhance the charge, and therefore the punishment as well.

Involuntary manslaughter, however, usually involves no intent to kill, though it may include the intent to do whatever action caused the victim’s death. States that discuss manslaughter in terms of degrees often refer to this as second-degree manslaughter. These charges usually rise from acts of negligence, careless actions that the defendant should have recognized as dangerous enough to potentially kill. Had the defendant acted responsibly and inline with societal norms, the victim would not have died. Shooting someone when a carelessly handled firearm unintentionally discharges may count as a negligent death.

Recklessness often differs from negligence in that a negligent person acts carelessly without considering or knowing the risk they are creating, whereas a reckless person is aware of the danger they are making but knowingly and willfully carries on anyway. Courts may differ on whether fatal recklessness is considered voluntary or involuntary manslaughter.

First-Degree Manslaughter vs. Second-Degree Manslaughter

Some states make a distinction of degrees between various types of manslaughter. This distinction often aligns with the difference between voluntary and involuntary manslaughter, with first-degree manslaughter being what is typically called voluntary manslaughter and second-degree manslaughter being what is typically known as reckless or involuntary manslaughter.

For example, Minnesota makes the following distinctions in its manslaughter laws (Minn. Stat. 609.20/609.25):

  • First-degree manslaughter involves situation where a defendant intentionally or proximately caused the death of the victim.
  • Second-degree manslaughter involves situations where a defendant’s negligence or recklessness causes the victim’s death.

What is Vehicular Manslaughter?

Avoidable car accidents are common sources of involuntary manslaughter charges when they result in the death of another person. In some jurisdictions, they may further specify such cases as vehicular manslaughter.

A driver who negligently caused a fatal car accident by crossing into the wrong lane while texting and driving could be charged with involuntary manslaughter or vehicular homicide.

Driving under the influence or driving while intoxicated may lead to involuntary manslaughter charges if the driver caused a deadly car accident. Alternatively, the court may consider drunk driving voluntary manslaughter or even murder, depending on the circumstances and jurisdiction. A blood-alcohol content far beyond the legal limit, repeat DUI or DWI offenses, aggravating factors like speeding, or underaged drinking and driving may lead to more severe criminal charges.

What are the Criminal Penalties for Involuntary Manslaughter?

Among all the different types of homicide charges, involuntary manslaughter is one of the least severe, but that doesn’t mean it’s by any means an insignificant charge.

Exact penalties will vary based on which court the defendant is tried in, the circumstances that surround the accidental death, and the defendant’s criminal record. On the lower-end of the sentencing spectrum, penalties may include from one to four years in prison and a fine upward of $10,000. More serious cases can carry maximum sentences of 10 or even 20 years in state prison.

Do I Need a Criminal Defense Lawyer for Involuntary Manslaughter?

An involuntary manslaughter conviction can have serious consequences with years of jail time, hefty fines, and a homicide judgment added to the defendant’s criminal record. It’s crucial that a defendant mounts the strongest manslaughter defense they can to avoid these repercussions.

Working with an experienced criminal defense attorney could help a defendant improve criminal case outcomes. A criminal defense lawyer can provide a defendant with legal advice, identify possible defenses, represent their client in court, and challenge the prosecution’s investigation and evidence. If necessary, they could help their client make a plea deal, lower charges, or get a shorter sentence if they are convicted. With so many nuances in homicide law, working with a criminal defense attorney who knows those legal details and exceptions can help a defendant avoid more serious consequences.

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