When a person ignores obvious risk to others and behaves in a reckless manner that disregards or endangers the life or safety of others, it is a criminal act under the law.

This type of reckless behavior is what is known as criminal negligence. Criminal negligence goes beyond mere carelessness, making a mistake in judgment, or unknowingly acting in a way that leads to the injury of another person. It occurs when the offender intentionally behaves in a way that a reasonable person would know poses a risk of harm to another person. If convicted of a crime involving criminal negligence, a person can face penalties such as jail time, fines, community service, or probation.

If you’ve been accused of criminally negligent conduct, there are several legal strategies that can be used to prove that you are not guilty of this type of reckless behavior. Whether you were unaware of the danger associated with a particular act, committed an act as a mistake or by accident, or acted with reasonable care, a criminal defense attorney can work with you to fight the accusations against you. 

What is criminal negligence? 

Criminal negligence is a form of reckless behavior where a person disregards obvious risks to human life or safety. 

There are certain crimes in which proof of criminal negligence is necessary to make a conviction. Involuntary manslaughter is one such crime. In California, the prosecutor must prove that the defendant unintentionally killed someone through a criminally negligent act. An example of involuntary manslaughter would be waving a loaded gun at someone in order to threaten or frighten them, but accidentally firing the gun and killing them. While the intention may have only been to frighten the victim, not kill them, there is an obvious risk to waving a loaded firearm and doing so is considered reckless behavior.

In a case where criminal negligence is necessary to make a conviction, the prosecutor must prove the following things: 

  1. That the defendant acted in a reckless manner which created a risk of death or great bodily injury to another person, and
  2. That a reasonable person would have known the risks associated with the reckless action

It is possible for a non-criminally negligent actions to cause harm or injury to another person. Bad luck, not being able to anticipate the risk associated with an action, simply being careless, or making a mistake in judgment are some of the ways in which one person’s actions can lead to another person’s injury or death. That is why the law only considers a person’s behavior to be criminally negligent if:

  • They had knowledge of the danger
  • Their behavior was outrageous and reckless
  • They posed an obvious risk to the victim, and
  • A reasonable person would have foreseen the risk associated with the act

Examples of criminal negligence

Some common examples of criminal negligence include:

  • Firing a weapon into the air in celebration
  • Leaving a child unattended in a hot car
  • Waving a loaded gun at another person
  • Recklessly drunk driving
  • Leaving a loaded weapon within a child’s reach
  • Speeding and texting while driving

Criminal negligence vs. civil negligence

In addition to criminal negligence, the law also recognizes civil negligence. Whereas criminal negligence is proven in a criminal case, civil negligence is proven in a civil case in which personal injury is involved. In a civil negligence case, the injured victim may recover damages or be paid financial compensation by the defendant. 

Another important difference between criminal and civil negligence is the level of reasonable care involved. Whereas criminally negligent behavior is marked by a drastic departure from how a reasonable person would act, civil negligence occurs when a person’s behavior is just below a reasonable and appropriate level of care. 

Criminal negligence in California

Under California state law, a defendant can be found guilty of criminal negligence if the prosecutor is able to prove that:

  1. The defendant created a risk of death of injury by acting recklessly
  2. The act demonstrated an indifference to human life, and
  3. It is reasonable to assume that a person would know that the act posed a risk of harm, and

It is also important to note that no one needs to be hurt or killed for an act to be considered criminally negligent. All that is necessary to prove criminal negligence is that the act itself is reckless and poses a significant risk that a reasonable person would have knowledge of.

Alternatively, an action may not necessarily be considered criminally negligent, even if it results in the injury or death of another person. This is often true in cases where a defendant made a mistake in judgment, or it would not have been reasonable for them to have knowledge of the risk.

Criminal negligence and intent

Intent is an element of most criminal offenses. That means that a prosecutor needs to prove that a defendant acted deliberately or intentionally for them to be found guilty of a crime. For example, in order to be found guilty of burglary, it must be proven that the defendant entered a building or structure belonging to someone else with the intent to commit a theft (or other felony crime) inside. 

In some cases, criminal negligence can act as a substitute for intent. This is because when someone acts in a way that they know risks endangering the life or safety of another person, it is considered “implied intent.” Implied intent is essentially a willingness to inflict harm. Whereas a person acting with intent inflicts harm deliberately, a person acting with implied intent acts willingly while knowing that their actions are dangerous and pose a risk to a victim. 

If a person is accused of acting with criminal negligence, there are several legal defense strategies that their defense attorney may use to challenge those allegations. Below are three of the most common defenses. 

1. Reasonable care

In order for a behavior to be considered reckless, it must be performed without a reasonable amount of care for the safety or wellbeing of others. If a reasonable amount of care was taken by the defendant to avoid causing harm to a victim, then they are not guilty of criminal negligence. If evidence of reasonable care can be provided, then this can be a strong defense strategy. 

Example: While driving home from work, Tim makes a left-hand turn when signaled by the traffic light. As he is making his turn, he realizes a slow-moving pedestrian is still crossing the street after their signal has passed. Tim tries to brake but ends up hitting and subsequently injuring the pedestrian. Because Tim took reasonable care in obeying traffic laws and trying to avoid injury to the pedestrian, his behavior cannot be considered criminally negligent. 

2. Accident or mistake

Criminally negligent behavior is defined by a disregard for obvious risks to human life or safety. Behavior that is accidental or a result of mere carelessness or a mistake in judgment does not constitute criminal negligence. A defendant may challenge accusations of criminal negligence by demonstrating that their actions were not reckless, but accidental or the product of a mistake in judgment. 

3. No knowledge of risk

For a defendant to be found guilty of criminal negligence, the risks of the defendant’s actions need to have been apparent and the defendant needs to have known that their actions put the victim at risk. A common defense against accusations of criminal negligence is to assert that the accused did not have knowledge of the risk involved in the alleged act. 

Example: While babysitting her neighbor’s 4-year-old daughter, Jenna leaves her alone in the backyard play area for a few minutes while she goes inside to use the bathroom. While Jenna is inside, the child finds her way to the swimming pool through a gate that Jenna was unaware had been left unlocked. Jenna returns to find that the child has fallen into the pool and drowned. 

While leaving the young child outside alone or not checking that the gate was fully secured may demonstrate poor judgment, Jenna’s actions don’t constitute criminal negligence. Jenna didn’t have knowledge that the swimming pool was accessible or that leaving the child alone in the play area could result in her drowning. Additionally, it would not have been unreasonable for Jenna to assume that going inside to use the bathroom would not pose a risk of deadly harm to the child.

If you have questions about criminal negligence or need legal help, attorney Robert M. Helfend is here to assist you. As one of southern California’s top rated criminal defense attorneys, Mr. Helfend has been passionately defending his clients and providing expert legal advice for over 30 years. With multiple offices in the Los Angeles area and the ability to serve clients throughout the state of California, you can rest assured that Robert M. Helfend and his staff will be there to serve and assist you. Call today at 800-834-6434 to schedule a consultation or any time 24/7 for immediate legal help.