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Oct 12, 2020

California’s Legal Definition of “Criminal Negligence”

Finding California’s legal definition of “criminal negligence” isn’t straightforward. The California Penal Code’s preliminary provisions, enacted in 1872, say that words like “negligent” and “negligence” “import a want of such attention to the nature or probable consequences of the act or omission as a prudent man ordinarily bestows in acting in his own concerns.” That sounds like it was written in the 1800s, and is as clear as mud.

The easiest way to unpack the phrase “criminal negligence” is to talk about what it isn’t. It isn’t an accident. If Sondra has the very first seizure of her life while she’s behind the wheel, loses consciousness, and drives her car into a pedestrian, that’s an accident. In contrast, let’s say that Sondra knows she has a seizure disorder and has had her driver’s license revoked. If she gets behind the wheel, has a seizure, and drives her car into a pedestrian, that’s criminal negligence. Sondra is criminally negligent because she ignores the risk of her behavior and acts differently than another person would under the same circumstances. After all, people with seizure disorders who don’t have driver’s licenses typically do not get behind the wheel. They know that doing so would pose a risk to themselves and others.

Criminal negligence isn’t an accident, and it’s not simply a mistake in judgment or carelessness. In order to prove criminal negligence in Alameda County and the rest of California, a prosecutor must show that the person accused knows that what they did created a risk to the person they hurt, or that other people in the same situation would have foreseen the risk and refrained from acting in the same way. For example, a reasonable person knows that pointing a loaded gun at someone – even in jest – poses a substantial risk to the other person. Let’s say that Sondra is in Oakland and points a loaded gun at Aaron. Her finger hits the trigger. The gun fires, and the bullet kills Aaron. Even though Sondra didn’t intend to kill Aaron, the Alameda County prosecutor can argue that she exhibited criminal negligence. In order for charges of criminal negligence to stick, the prosecutor must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that there is no other possible explanation for the actions of the accused.

Another way to look at criminal negligence is to contrast it with intention. An easily understandable contrast is the difference between murder and manslaughter. Murder is charged when one person intentionally kills another person. If Sondra purposefully aims and fires the gun at Aaron and he dies, she is charged with murder. Manslaughter can be charged when there isn’t an intent to kill but when there’s criminal negligence – as when Sondra jokingly points a gun at Aaron and the gun goes off.

It’s important to note that criminal negligence refers to the person’s actions, not the consequences of their actions. So, even if Aaron isn’t hurt, the prosecution can still argue that Sondra was criminally negligent.

Criminal negligence can also be contrasted with civil negligence. Civil negligence is typically a factor in noncriminal cases, in which one party is attempting to recover monetary damages from another party. Let’s say that Sondra needs to have surgery on her left knee. When she awakens from the anesthesia, she discovers that the surgeon operated on her right knee. In her subsequent medical malpractice suit, civil negligence is the central issue in determining her financial recovery for the surgeon’s error. In a different scenario, let’s say that Sondra crashed her car into her neighbor’s parked car because she was texting. The neighbor accuses Sondra of negligence when suing her for damages.

The standard for civil negligence is lower than for criminal negligence. With civil negligence, the person being sued has to act just shy of how a “reasonable” person would act. With criminal negligence, the standard is recklessness.

Dating back to 1939, much of the caselaw involving criminal negligence pertains to whether or not lower courts provided juries with proper instructions. For example, in People v. Pociask, heard before the California Supreme Court, Mr. Pociask appealed a conviction of negligent homicide. He had failed the eye exam portion of his driver’s license test and so did not have a driver’s license. He was out driving one night, and struck and killed two bicyclists. Mr. Pociask argued that the jury should have been told that negligence must be found before guilt is determined. The court cited a 1931 case, in which a freight train guard fired his gun over the heads of a group of men in order to frighten them away. In doing so, one of the guard’s bullets struck and injured a man quite a distance away. As it pertained to Mr. Pociask’s case, the California Supreme Court decided that the lower court did not make an error in its jury instructions and let Mr. Pociask’s conviction stand.

Charges Involving Criminal Negligence

Criminal negligence is an element of several types of charges, including:

Child Endangerment: Typically, child endangerment charges are filed if you either cause or allow a child under 18 to be injured, to be in a dangerous situation, or to experience physical or emotional suffering. For example, if you leave a handgun in your nightstand and your son and his friend find it and play with it, you can be charged with child endangerment. The prosecution will argue that a firearm that’s accessible to children makes you criminally negligent.

Vehicular Manslaughter: If you kill another person while driving and the prosecutor believes you were grossly negligent, you can be charged with felony vehicular manslaughter. Perhaps you were texting and driving when you crashed into another car, maybe you were going 85 miles per hour on a street with a 40 mile per hour speed limit and hit a car pulling out from a side street, or perhaps you ran a red light and hit a pedestrian. If your actions killed another person or your actions substantially contributed to their death, the prosecutor will argue that you were grossly negligent.

Involuntary Manslaughter: Involuntary manslaughter is typically charged when the prosecutor believes you unintentionally caused the death of another but exhibited criminal negligence. In order to make the charges stick, the death has to occur while you were committing an infraction, misdemeanor, or non-dangerous felony. For example, if you own a bar and continue selling alcohol to a drunk patron that ends up dying of alcohol poisoning, you can be charged with involuntary manslaughter.

Defenses Against Criminal Negligence

If you have been accused or charged with a crime – whether manslaughter, burglary, child endangerment, or another crime – involving criminal negligence, you need an Alameda County criminal defense attorney. Fighting criminal negligence charges in Oakland and the rest of Alameda County takes a legal eagle experienced in criminal defense.

Your Alameda County criminal defense lawyer can make a case that undermines the prosecution’s assertion of criminal negligence. For example, the attorney may argue that Sondra shooting at Aaron was simply an accident. Maybe they can make the case that Sondra wasn’t pointing the gun at Aaron; instead, that Aaron asked to see the weapon and walked in front of the barrel. They may be able to say that Sondra handled the gun responsibly, and believed that the gun’s safety was on. They could point to Sondra’s history of gun ownership, to her many hours spent on the gun range, and to the gun safety courses she attended. The attorney could posit another logical explanation for the sequence of events that occurred. Any of these arguments could undercut the prosecution’s claim of criminal negligence.

How an Alameda County Criminal Defense Attorney Can Help

If pushing back against charges of criminal negligence isn’t possible, an Alameda County criminal defense attorney can intercede in other ways to ensure that they achieve the best possible outcome for your case. For example, your Oakland criminal defense attorney can negotiate with the prosecutor in a way that allows you to plead guilty to a lesser charge. If you’ve been charged with felony child endangerment, a conviction can carry a prison sentence of two, four, or six years, along with a fine of up to $10,000. If you plead guilty to misdemeanor child endangerment, the maximum punishment is one year in county jail and a $1,000 fine. Your Oakland criminal defense lawyer may be able to go further and convince the prosecutor to ask the judge for informal probation in lieu of a jail sentence.

If the prosecutor doesn’t budge, your Alameda County criminal defense attorney can represent you at every point from your preliminary hearing through to your trial. They can develop a rigorous defense designed to undercut the notion that you acted in a way that was criminally negligent. If the prosecutor can’t prove criminal negligence, the case against you is doomed.

Criminal negligence is a serious matter. If you’ve been charged with a crime involving criminal negligence, every second matters. Call Silver Law Firm today for a free consultation. You truly have everything to gain and nothing to lose.



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