One of the primary elements a prosecutor must prove in attempting to convict a defendant of any crime is that the defendant had the required state of mind (called mens rea.) This means that the defendant either intended to commit the crime, or was so reckless about their conduct that the result was inevitable. These are ‘negligent’ crimes, and can be some of the most difficult to prove.
In New York, criminally negligent homicide (NYPL 125.10) applies when someone, in criminal negligence, causes the death of another person. Usually, the person’s conduct must be seen as reckless, inattentive or careless to the point of criminality. Acting with criminal negligence (NYPL 15.05(4) means that someone failed to perceive a substantial risk that the conduct or actions (or inaction) would likely result in someone else’s death. The risk must be a gross deviation from the standard of care that a reasonable person would observe under the circumstances.
Case law has expanded on this concept further. In People v. Conway, 6 NY3d 869, 849 N.E.2d 954, 816 N.Y.S.2d 731 (2006), the court held that criminal negligence “requires a defendant to have engaged in some blameworthy conduct” which created or contributed to a “substantial and unjustifiable risk of a proscribed result.” The behavior must be so careless that its risks and the seriousness of them would be obvious to anyone who shares “the community’s general sense of right and wrong.” People v. Cabrera, 887 N.E.2d 1132, 858 N.Y.S.2d 74 (2008). The conduct cannot be a mere accident – therefore, if the defendant is found speeding in a car, texting on the phone, or driving recklessly, this would be sufficient to show negligence. Often, criminal negligence charges accompany accidents where the defendant has been found to be drunk or under the influence of narcotics. Criminally negligent homicide is a class E felony, meaning if convicted, you could face a sentence of up to 4 years in prison along with a significant fine.
These negligent kinds of crimes frequently are applied to those deaths which stem from motor vehicle accidents. For example, in Tennessee, a jury recently found a school bus driver guilty of the deaths of six children. The state argued that the driver had been talking on his cell phone, and driving 50 mph in a 30 mph zone at the time of the accident. He drove into a tree, flipping the bus onto its side, killing 6 children and injuring 24 others. In Louisiana, two individuals are now facing negligent homicide charges. In October 2017, an off-duty officer was driving 94 miles per hour when he hit another vehicle at an intersection. Eight people were in the five-seater vehicle, and none had on any seatbelts. A one-year-old child ended up dying as a result of the accident. The officer was charged, and the mother has also been charged with negligent homicide, even though she was not driving. Authorities claim that she failed to properly secure the child’s car seat, recently announcing that it wasn’t buckled in at all.
Last summer, a woman pled guilty to criminally negligent homicide in New York. Angelika Graswald was accused of killing her fiancé in 2015 when they went kayaking down the Hudson River. His boat capsized and disappeared. Prosecutors claimed that she had removed a plug from her fiancee’s kayak, causing its sinking, and took away one of his paddles while he was trying to control his boat. While she maintained that it was never her intent to kill her fiancée, she did admit in accepting the plea deal that she should have perceived the risks and dangers of kayaking on the river that day.
In many cases, once a criminal conviction for a crime of negligence is obtained, the defendant can face further liability in civil court. That is because the burden of proof is higher in criminal court. The assumption is then that it is easier to obtain a verdict of liability in civil court once a criminal court has found negligence. Although accepting a plea for criminal negligence sounds good in some ways, there are repercussions that could affect other aspects of your life which you should be aware of. A good criminal defense attorney will be able to discuss the implications of criminal negligence should you be charged with it.