What Is Criminal Negligence?

Understand how the law defines criminal negligence.

By , Attorney · Mitchell Hamline School of Law

Negligence is a concept invoked more frequently in civil, rather than criminal cases. That's because conduct that involves ordinary negligence, like becoming distracted while driving and rear-ending someone, typically isn't enough for a criminal conviction. While most crimes involve intentional conduct, legislators have decided a lower level of culpability suffices to impose criminal penalties for certain offenses. Specifically, some crimes involve reckless or negligent, rather than intentional, conduct.

What Is Criminal Negligence?

Criminal negligence (sometimes called culpable negligence) refers to a defendant who acts in disregard of a serious risk of harm that a reasonable person in the same situation would have perceived. Another common definition includes an act that amounts to a gross deviation from the general standard of care.

Offenses that may result from criminal negligence include involuntary manslaughter, negligent vehicular homicide, criminal neglect or endangerment of a child, negligent storage of firearms, or negligent keeping of a dangerous dog.

Is Recklessness the Same as Criminal Negligence?

The term "reckless" essentially describes a defendant's simultaneous understanding and conscious or wanton disregard of a substantial risk of harm. Examples include reckless discharge of a firearm toward a house or vehicle, reckless driving, drag racing, and criminal vehicular homicide (intoxicated)

Some courts draw a distinction between recklessness and criminal negligence, explaining that recklessness requires that the defendant actually appreciate the risk in question, while criminal negligence occurs when the defendant should have been aware of the risk. (See Ex parte Koppersmith, 701 So.2d 821 (Ala. 1997).)

In other words, recklessness can be considered a step above criminal negligence but doesn't quite reach the level of a knowing or intentional act. Practically speaking, though, the concepts are difficult to distinguish, and many courts and legislatures use "criminal negligence" and "recklessness" interchangeably.

What Is the Difference Between Criminal and Civil Negligence?

Civil negligence means a person failed to exercise reasonable care in their actions. Criminal negligence, on the other hand, typically involves a negligent act that is so egregious, it's likely to result in the risk of death or serious bodily harm.

Say someone made an illegal left turn and hit a pedestrian. This traffic violation and the resulting harm probably won't rise to the level of criminal negligence. The left turn was illegal but not foreseeably dangerous. But had the person been drag racing and hit a pedestrian, the person would likely be guilty of criminal negligence. A reasonable person knows drag racing is dangerous and the defendant consciously disregarded the risk.

The other distinction is that civil negligence can result in monetary damages, but no possibility of jail time. In a civil case, the victim (plaintiff) files a lawsuit against the wrongdoer (the defendant). Criminal negligence can result in jail or prison time, and a government prosecutor files criminal charges against the defendant.

Defenses to Criminal Negligence

A person may defend an act of criminal negligence by claiming the act was an accident or didn't rise to the level of consciously disregarding a serious risk of harm. Questions of criminal negligence often come down to a jury deciding whether the evidence supports the charges of criminal negligence.

Talk to a Lawyer

If you have questions regarding charges or an investigation involving acts of criminal negligence or recklessness, contact a criminal defense attorney. A lawyer can help you understand the law and protect your rights.

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