Is Involuntary Manslaughter a Felony?
Manslaughter is generally defined as causing another person’s death without intending to do so. A distinction is made between voluntary and involuntary manslaughter to further define the crime. While voluntary manslaughter carries a harsher punishment than involuntary manslaughter, both are considered felonies. In this article, we will define the various types of manslaughter and highlight modern examples of the law in action.
While state laws differ on involuntary manslaughter charges, the crime is a felony no matter which state you live in. A felony charge brings with it a minimum prison sentence of 12 months, fines, and probation.
What Is Involuntary Manslaughter?
Let’s start with the legal definition. Here is how the federal law reads according to 18. U.S. Code § 1112 reads on manslaughter:
(a) Manslaughter is the unlawful killing of a human being without malice. It is of two kinds:
Voluntary—Upon a sudden quarrel or heat of passion.
Involuntary—In the commission of an unlawful act not amounting to a felony, or in the commission in an unlawful manner, or without due caution and circumspection, of a lawful act which might produce death.
(b) Within the special maritime and territorial jurisdiction of the United States,
Whoever is guilty of voluntary manslaughter, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 15 years, or both;
Whoever is guilty of involuntary manslaughter, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than eight years, or both.
The involuntary portion of the law says that the act must not be a felony, but then the law becomes more nuanced. The language reads that the act must not be “in the commission in an unlawful manner, or without due caution and circumspection, of a lawful act which might produce death.”
In layman’s terms, to be considered involuntary manslaughter, the act that led to another person’s death cannot be an illegal act, and it cannot have been done recklessly.
What Is the Difference Between Voluntary and Involuntary Manslaughter?
Federal law describes voluntary manslaughter as “Voluntary—Upon a sudden quarrel or heat of passion.” This description would seem to represent a fight that got out of hand, and someone ended up dead when that was never the intention of the person who committed the act.
How does this example differ from involuntary manslaughter? For someone to have only committed involuntary manslaughter, they must practice “due caution and circumspection,” which means that caution to prevent risk in a situation must be present. In the case of a quarrel that got out of hand and ended with one person dead, risk is thrown to the wind, as there is no caution of what could potentially happen.
Example of Voluntary Manslaughter
Voluntary manslaughter is an infrequently used murder charge that takes into account the heat of the moment and considers that the perpetrator had no prior intent to kill. The classic example of voluntary manslaughter is when a person returns home to find their partner in bed with another person, and in a “heat of passion,” they kill their cheating partner.
A potential real-life example of voluntary manslaughter is in the case of police officer Derek Chauvin and his killing of George Floyd in late May 2020. Chauvin, who killed Floyd by kneeling on his neck for over eight minutes, has been charged with second-degree manslaughter, third-degree murder, and second-degree murder.
As each state has its own specific laws governing manslaughter, Minnesota laws may differ from other states. In Minnesota, third-degree murder is known as voluntary manslaughter. This charge is reserved for when an act was intentional, but the resulting death was not. The maximum sentence for third-degree murder in Minnesota is 25 years in jail and a fine of $40,000.
Second-degree manslaughter in Minnesota is more like involuntary manslaughter. It is reserved for cases in which culpable negligence leads to someone’s death. The maximum penalty for second-degree manslaughter in Minnesota is ten years in jail and a fine of $20,000.
What Is the Punishment for Involuntary Manslaughter?
Laws will vary from state to state, and states often use federal laws as standards for drawing their own sentencing guidelines. Often, there will be a wide range of potential sentences, and it is usually up to the judge to decide on what penalty the crime deserves.
Involuntary Manslaughter Federal Laws
If you are convicted of involuntary manslaughter in a federal court, you will be facing a minimum sentence of ten to 16 months in jail. If the crime was committed in a reckless way, the potential penalty could increase in accordance with how reckless the behavior was.
Involuntary Manslaughter State Laws
Each individual state creates its own laws on involuntary manslaughter sentencing. And each judge will use their own discretion to determine the length of the sentence. Judges will consider a variety of variables in the case. Mitigating factors such as the defendant’s lack of criminal history and acceptance of responsibility can work to lessen a sentence. Conversely, a defendant’s history of reckless behavior or criminal history can lead to a sentence closer to the maximum.
New York does not separate manslaughter offenses as either “voluntary” or “involuntary.” New York law mandates manslaughter charges as either in the first degree or the second degree.
Here’s how New York defines second-degree manslaughter:
A person commits second-degree manslaughter when he or she (a) recklessly causes the death of another person; (b) commits an unjustified abortional act upon a female which causes her death; or (c) commits assisted suicide.
Second-degree manslaughter is a Class C felony that has a sentence ranging from three to 15 years in jail and a fine of up to $5,000. This charge can be elevated to aggravated second-degree manslaughter if the victim is a police officer or a peace officer. Aggravated charges increase to seven to 20 years in jail and a fine of up to $5,000.
New York can charge someone with first-degree manslaughter if the offender intended to cause serious injury to the victim. To receive a charge of murder, the intent must be to cause death. Here is how New York defines manslaughter in the first degree:
S 125.20 Manslaughter in the first degree.
A person is guilty of manslaughter in the first degree when:
1. With intent to cause serious physical injury to another person, he causes the death of such person or of a third person; or
2. With intent to cause the death of another person, he causes the death of such person or of a third person under circumstances which do not constitute murder because he acts under the influence of extreme emotional disturbance, as defined in paragraph (a) of subdivision one of section 125.25. The fact that homicide was committed under the influence of extreme emotional disturbance constitutes a mitigating circumstance reducing murder to manslaughter in the first degree and need not be proved in any prosecution initiated under this subdivision; or
3. He commits upon a female pregnant for more than twenty-four weeks an abortional act which causes her death, unless such abortional act is justifiable pursuant to subdivision three of section 125.05; or
4. Being eighteen years old or more and with intent to cause physical injury to a person less than eleven years old, the defendant recklessly engages in conduct which creates a grave risk of serious physical injury to such person and thereby causes the death of such person.
Manslaughter in the first degree is a class B felony.
Wrongful Death vs. Manslaughter
Wrongful death cases are tried in civil court and do not have separate criminal charges. The family that has suffered a death can file a civil suit against the person held responsible to seek financial damages.
What Is Vehicular Manslaughter?
When a driver unintentionally causes an accident that ends with the death of passengers, pedestrians, or passengers in another car, they could be charged with vehicular manslaughter. If the driver was intoxicated with drugs or alcohol, driving carelessly or recklessly, or driving illegally, they are much more likely to be found guilty of vehicular manslaughter.
Vehicular manslaughter is a relatively new homicide classification. Previously, causing someone else’s death unintentionally with a vehicle was another form of manslaughter. However, juries were reluctant to find a person guilty of manslaughter for a traffic accident.
Vehicular Manslaughter Laws
There are only three states in the U.S. that do not have specific laws for vehicular homicide: Alaska, Arizona, and Montana. In an effort to make convictions easier and punish offenses more severely, these three states have laws that can potentially classify vehicles as deadly weapons. In those cases, defendants could be charged with either manslaughter or murder to a certain degree.
Types of Vehicular Manslaughter
Vehicular manslaughter typically falls into three main categories: driving while intoxicated, violating a safety law, or driving while falling asleep.
Driving While Intoxicated
One of the most common ways to prove negligence behind the wheel is if the driver was under the influence of drugs or alcohol. There are many different ways to prove intoxication, whether it is through eyewitness testimony, chemical evidence, or self-incrimination. But merely proving a legal level of intoxication is often not enough evidence to prove negligence. Prosecutors in most states must show that the intoxication led to careless driving to get a vehicular manslaughter conviction. Florida, however, is the one state in which intoxication is all that is necessary to convict.
Typically, a blood alcohol content of 0.08 percent is enough to qualify as intoxication. Some states, though, have lower thresholds for certain classes of drivers, such as those underage or commercial vehicle drivers. Even if the blood alcohol content does not go above the legal limit, a prosecutor showing negligent driving along with alcohol consumption can be enough to convict.
Violating a Safety Law
If any type of safety law related to driving a car is violated during the act, vehicular manslaughter could be a viable charge. Examples of these safety laws are keeping windshield wipers clear, following “no passing” signs, not performing illegal turns, and driving the speed limit.
Some states put in statutes specifically related to safety. In Iowa, for example, a driver that passes a stopped school bus and causes a death has committed a felony. But other deaths that do not involve intoxicated driving are viewed as misdemeanors in Iowa.
Driving While Falling Asleep
Driving while falling asleep is a common cause of traffic accidents. But driving while asleep is not always negligent enough to warrant vehicular manslaughter charges. Context is key in these situations. If someone worked all day, stayed up all night, and then tried to drive after being awake for over 24 hours, that would likely prove to be negligent enough for vehicular manslaughter charges.
Can a Non-Driver Be Charged with Vehicular Manslaughter?
It is extremely rare, but it is not always the driver that gets charged with a crime.
In Georgia, for example, there was a unique case in 2010 that garnered much scrutiny and controversy. A woman named Raquel Nelson was trying to cross a highway with her kids. Tragically, her four-year-old son, A.J., was struck and killed by a car while they were crossing. After an investigation, it was determined that the death was caused by attempting to cross the street in unsafe conditions.
Raquel Nelson was charged with vehicular manslaughter in the second degree. The driver, who was found to be intoxicated, was charged with vehicular manslaughter in the first degree. For Nelson, her charges stemmed from breaking a traffic law that requires a person not in a crosswalk to yield to oncoming traffic. As for the driver, he had previously been convicted of two separate hit-and-run charges. So who is at fault here? A better question is, why was the driver still allowed to drive?
The sentencing, in this case, was carried out in an uncommon manner. Nelson was found guilty, and initially, the judge sentenced her to 40 hours of community service and 12 months of probation. But the judge told Nelson that she could accept these charges or choose to have a re-trial.
Nelson decided on the re-trial, but then claimed she could not be tried of the same crime twice, citing double jeopardy. The double jeopardy attempt ultimately failed. But Nelson was eventually offered a plea deal to give a guilty charge in exchange for a jaywalking offense and a $400 fine.
Famous Example of Involuntary Manslaughter
Unfortunately, there are numerous cases of involuntary manslaughter across the country at any given time. The common theme among these examples is negligence on the part of the perpetrators. The level of negligence often will determine the type of manslaughter charges and penalties that are handed down. Here is one of the more famous examples of involuntary manslaughter.
Michael Jackson’s Doctor
The case of Michael Jackson’s doctor and the resulting death of Jackson is one of the more polarizing cases of involuntary manslaughter. The case is known as California v. Murray, as two L.A. deputy district attorneys attempted to convict Dr. Conrad Murray of involuntary manslaughter. Murray frequently would stay with Jackson, sometimes as much as six nights a week. The defense noted that Jackson frequently asked and often begged the doctor to give him drugs strong enough to make him sleep.
Murray claimed that Jackson was especially interested in taking propofol, which is an anesthetic used in surgeries. When other powerful sedatives could not help him sleep, Jackson could rely on the propofol. His reliance on propofol would ultimately lead to his death. But was Doctor Murray at fault enough for an involuntary manslaughter conviction?
The prosecution’s claim was that Jackson’s misplaced trust in Doctor Murray is what led to his death. The night of his death, Jackson was under immense pressure. After a long night of rehearsing, Jackson took eight tabs of the sedative lorazepam under the supervision of Doctor Murray. But when Murray left the room, Jackson gave himself an additional dose of propofol. The combination of propofol with the amount of lorazepam he took created the deadly cocktail that killed Jackson.
Murray’s attorney claimed that the dose Jackson took killed him so fast he “didn’t even have time to close his eyes.” Jackson died three weeks before a new comeback tour entitled “This Is It” was scheduled to kick off in London. Six days before his death, co-director of the concerts, Kenny Ortega, saw Jackson show up to rehearsals looking “chilled, lost and incoherent.”
“I was feeding him, wrapping him in blankets to warm his chills, massaging his feet to calm him and calling his doctor,” Ortega wrote. “It broke my heart. He was like a lost boy. He is terribly frightened it is all going to go away.”
But four days later, Jackson was back to normal. Murray had been trying to wean Jackson off of propofol, which he claimed Jackson referred to as “milk.” Chernoff, Murray’s attorney, finished his closing statements saying, “The whole thing is tragic, but the evidence is not that Dr. Murray did it.”
However, it was Murray’s application of the propofol that discredited his reliability as a doctor. The prosecution showed a video of how propofol was supposed to be administered. Then, they cited 17 different violations Murray had committed in his administration of propofol to Jackson. Four of them were considered to be “unconscionable.” It also became ambiguous whether or not the lethal dose of propofol came from Murray or Jackson himself. And even if Jackson did administer his own propofol, the prosecution argued that Murray set up the deadly situation when he left Jackson alone in the room.
After a 24-day trial, the jury handed down their verdict on November 7, 2011. Murray was found guilty and was sentenced to the maximum of four years in jail. Murray ended up serving two of those years, being released early for good behavior and overcrowding.