Negligent homicide, sometimes referred to as criminally negligent homicide or involuntary manslaughter, is a form of murder under Arizona law. While murder is the most serious crime a person can face, the law carves out levels of severity for homicide charges. While still a very serious felony, negligent homicide is the lowest level of all murder charges. In fact, many negligent homicides charged in Arizona involve horrible mistakes and the death a person known to the person charged. As experienced homicide attorneys, we fight to protect those charged with a crime after a tragic accident.
NEGLIGENT HOMICIDE DEFINITION
For the crime of negligent homicide, Arizona law ARS 13-1102 requires the prosecution prove that you caused the death of another person with criminal negligence. You had no intention to kill when you commit negligent homicide.
Acting with criminal negligence means that you failed to recognize a substantial and unjustifiable risk of causing the death of another person. The type of risk the law is talking about is one that a reasonable person would not have taken. So, what raises the degree of negligence from ordinary civil liability to criminal liability is when you act in an extremely unreasonable way. Arizona calls this criminal negligence, while some states call it gross negligence.
Examples of Negligent Homicide
- Child left in hot car. A parent forgets that their child is in a car seat in the backseat and leaves the child in the car while the parent goes to work. After work, the parent returns to the car and realizes they forgot their child in the back seat, but the child has died from heatstroke. The parent is heartbroken and had absolutely no intention of killing their child, but a prosecutor could decide to charge the parent with Negligent Homicide.
- Waiting too long to call 911. While hanging out together, two college friends decide to get high on prescription drugs. One friend overdoses. Instead of immediately calling 911 for help, the other friend becomes frantic because they were both abusing prescription drugs. So, instead, she texts and calls some other friends. And finally, an hour later, she calls 911. But when the paramedics arrive the overdosed friend is already unresponsive, and paramedics cannot revive her. She dies as a result. The friend who waited an hour before calling 911 could be charged with negligent homicide.
- Inattentive Babysitter. A grandfather is babysitting his toddler granddaughter at his home. His home has two stories and the second-floor rooms have outdoor balconies with widely spaced railings that his granddaughter can easily fit through. While babysitting, he leaves the doors to the outdoor balconies open because the weather is nice that day. But his toddler goes on one of the balconies, falls through the railings and dies. Grandfather could be charged with negligent homicide.
CRIME OR TRAGIC ACCIDENT?
Sometimes a person who is sadly involved in a tragic accident that results in another person’s death is charged for acting with criminal negligence with the crime of negligent homicide.
The above examples of situations that can lead to a negligent homicide charge show you the fine line between a tragic accident and negligent homicide. Also, many times Negligent Homicide cases involve families hurting their own loved ones. Criminal charges can make an already horrible and sad situation even worse. The family is already grieving and often do not want criminal charges brought against their own family member for what they consider to be a tragic accident.
If you or a loved one is charged with negligent homicide, then it is important that you have a skilled attorney on your side. Your attorney needs to ensure that the prosecution is not unfairly holding you criminally liable for a tragic accident.
NEGLIGENT HOMICIDE VS MANSLAUGHTER
Negligent homicide is very similar to manslaughter (ARS 13-1103), under Arizona law. The difference is that for negligent homicide, you are not aware of the risk, whereas for manslaughter, you are aware of the risk. In fact, negligent homicide used to be called involuntary manslaughter in Arizona. It is essentially an unintentional manslaughter.
SIDE NOTE: Sometimes, the prosecution will try to charge you with a more serious type of homicide, such as manslaughter or second degree murder. Convictions for negligent homicide are often the result of either:
- A result of plea bargaining; or
- A jury deciding that a person is guilty of the less serious offense of negligent homicide rather than the more serious homicide charge alleged by the prosecutor.
Examples of Negligent Homicide vs Manslaughter
- Child left in hot car. Let’s take the first example from above where the parent forgets their child in a hot car. If the parent was aware that they were leaving the child in the car while going in for a work shift, then the parent could be charged with Manslaughter. Whereas the parent who forgot that the child was still in the car was not aware that they were leaving the child and would be charged with Negligent Homicide. But whether the parent faces Manslaughter or Negligent Homicide really depends on what type of evidence there is to show that the parent had awareness.
- Employer’s unsafe policies. An employer set unsafe practices and policies at the workplace. An employee who follows these unsafe practices and policies dies as a result. The prosecution would likely charge the employer with manslaughter. Depending on the exact facts, however, a jury could find the employer guilty of the less serious crime of negligent homicide.
In fact, there was a case in Arizona where the president and chief executive officer (CEO) of a sewer treatment plant was charged with manslaughter. But after trial, the jury convicted him of negligent homicide instead.
The CEO was an industry professional and knew the dangers of working at a sewer treatment plant, including dangerous toxic gases. He was aware of federal regulations regarding certain safety procedures and practices to make sewer treatment tanks safe for workers to enter.
Instead of following these regulations, he attempted to sidestep them and put into place unsafe policies that allowed his employees to enter underground tanks that were not safe. As a result, employees died when they were overcome by a toxic gas.
The prosecution sought charges for manslaughter and the case went to trial. The jury found the CEO guilty of the less-serious criminal offense of negligent homicide. The Arizona Court of Appeals upheld his convictions and said that there was plenty of evidence that the employees’ deaths were a direct result from the unsafe practices and policies adopted by the CEO on behalf of the company.
If the jury had convicted the CEO of manslaughter, it appears that the Arizona Court of Appeals would have also upheld those convictions because there was evidence that the CEO was aware of the risk.
These examples show you the fine line of manslaughter vs negligent homicide and the importance of having an experienced homicide attorney to defend you. You want to make sure that your criminal charge is dropped down to the lowest possible charge and that I fth ecase goes to trial you are acquitted.
NEGLIGENT HOMICIDE SENTENCE
Negligent homicide is a Class 4 Felony.
If you have no prior criminal record, and you did not use a deadly weapon (e.g., a gun) or dangerous instrument (e.g., a car or a baseball bat) to commit the crime, then the sentence for negligent homicide could be:
- Probation, with anywhere from 0 days in jail to 12 months in jail; or
- A minimum of 1 year in prison and up to a maximum of 3.75 years in prison.
The prison terms increase if you have prior criminal convictions.
If you are charged with negligent homicide as a Class 4 Dangerous Felony, meaning that you either used a deadly weapon (e.g., a gun) or a dangerous instrument (e.g., a car or a baseball bat), then the sentence for negligent homicide includes a mandatory prison sentence. If this is the case, then you could be sentenced to:
- A minimum of 4 years in prison and up to a maximum of 8 years in prison.
And if you have a prior criminal history, then the prison terms again increase.
DEFENSES TO NEGLIGENT HOMICIDE
Because Negligent Homicide does not involve any intent to kill, it is never a defense to argue that you did not intend to commit the crime or that you were justified in any way to commit the crime. Instead, the main defenses to negligent homicide are:
One of the most common defenses is to argue that the death of the other person was the result of an accident, not criminal action. You argue that the prosecution cannot prove that your actions were criminally negligent. The death could have happened to any reasonable person under the same circumstances that you faced.
- Example: Let’s take the above example about a child left in a hot car. The exact circumstances that led to the parent forgetting that their child was in the car are important to separate a tragic accident from criminally negligent behavior. Also, it may be necessary to hire an expert to testify about how human memory works and what happens when people go on autopilot. It is important to show that the child could have been left in the car by any reasonable person in the parent’s shoes.
Did Not Cause the Death
Another common defense to Negligent Homicide is to argue that your actions were not the cause of death. Some other event or person caused the death.
- Example: Let’s take the above example about a friend waiting too long to call 911 when her friend overdoses. An expert should be hired to evaluate the effects of the overdose and timing of the death. What’s the prosecution’s evidence that proves that, even if the defendant had called 911 shortly after her friend overdosed, her friend would have survived? It was the overdose that caused the death, not the defendant waiting to call 911.
If you’re facing a charge of negligent homicide, you need someone that can evaluate every defense possible. At Feldman & Royle, we have the experience and skills necessary to ensure that the prosecution does not unfairly convict you for what is too often a tragic accident. If you or a loved one faces a charge of negligent homicide, contact an experienced homicide attorney as soon as possible to protect your rights. We offer a free, confidential consultation.