Criminal Charges in Death Accidents

posted by on Wednesday, August 01, 2012

There is nothing more tragic then when a life meets its untimely death in a traffic accident.  The sudden loss of a loved one who was otherwise healthy and vivacious is almost impossible to comprehend and is even more difficult for friends and family to bear.  Consequently, theses accidents often spark public outcry and a demand for the criminal prosecution of the responsible party.  More times than not though, a simple traffic violation citation is all that is issued leaving many to wonder "why?"

The primary potential criminal charge that could be filed in a death accident, when drugs or alcohol are not involved, is Involuntary Manslaughter.  While Vehicular Homicide charges can, and often are filed in drug and alcohol related accidents or accidents involving other outrageous conduct such as drag racing, Involuntary Manslaughter is the most likely candidate when a driver's conduct does not rise to such an outrageous level.

Involuntary manslaughter is committed when a person "unintentionally causes the death of another" by recklessly committing either "a public offense, other than a forcible felony (i.e. rape, assault, willful injury) or escape," or an act "likely to cause death or serious injury.  In traffic related fatalities, the "public offense" alternative is the most likely since any traffic violation is considered a "public offense."   If a traffic infraction qualifies as a "public offense" the logical question is "why aren't Involuntary Manslaughter charges filed in every accident fatality case?"  The answer lies in the "recklessness" requirement.

It is not enough for a driver to commit a public offense which unintentionally results in the death of another.  The public offense must be committed "recklessly."  The legal definition of "reckless" is conduct that shows a willful and wanton disregard for the safety of others."  In other words, "recklessness" is ordinarily a conscious and intentional decision by a driver and involves an unreasonable risk of harm to others which is or should be known to the individual.  It is knowing that there is a significant chance that the driver's conduct will place others in danger and going ahead and doing it anyways.

Examples of "recklessness" could be texting and driving, speeding excessively through a high pedestrian traffic area such as a school zone,  or driving a vehicle when a person's vision is obscured due to snow or ice still remaining on the windows.  The possible examples of "reckless" conduct are many, but they all require a showing that the driver knows (or should know) and appreciates the risk associated with the act and does it anyway.  Obviously this is a fairly difficult burden for the prosecution to meet, especially beyond a reasonable doubt, which is why many traffic fatality investigations end with merely a citation for a traffic offense being issued to the offending party.

Involuntary Manslaughter is a Class D Felony punishable by up to 5 years in prison.
  1. criminal defense
  2. drunk driving
  3. vehicular homicide