Manslaughter (United States law)

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Manslaughter is a crime in the United States. Definitions can vary among jurisdictions, but manslaughter is invariably the act of causing the death of another person in a manner less culpable than homicide.

Laws in the United States[edit]

Voluntary manslaughter[edit]

There have been many types of voluntary manslaughter. These have not been differentiated here as they are so closely related or indistinguishable that many US jurisdictions do not differentiate between them.[1] The following are some examples of defenses which may be raised to mitigate murder to voluntary manslaughter:

  • Provocation: A killing which occurs after provocation by an event which would cause a reasonable person to lose self-control. There must not be a cooling off period negating provocation. If there is an interval between the provocation and killing sufficient to allow the passion of a reasonable person to cool, the homicide is not manslaughter, but murder.
  • Imperfect self-defense: In some jurisdictions, a person who acted in self-defense with an honest but unreasonable belief that deadly force was necessary to do so can reduce a murder charge to one of voluntary manslaughter or deliberate homicide committed without criminal malice. Malice is found if a person is killed intentionally and without legal excuse or mitigation.
  • Diminished capacity is a defense which serves to negate the mental state of "malice". If a jurisdiction recognizes that a person can kill without justification, but also without any evil intent, for example due to a mental defect or mental illness, that jurisdiction is free to define the crime as something less than murder. This partial defense is only available in some US jurisdictions and not others; whereas the complete defense of insanity is available throughout the US, but rarely used because it is more difficult to show.

Involuntary manslaughter[edit]

Constructive manslaughter[edit]

In the United States, misdemeanor manslaughter is a lesser version of felony murder, and covers a person who causes the death of another while committing a misdemeanor – that is, a violation of law which doesn't rise to the level of a felony. This may automatically lead to a conviction for the homicide if the misdemeanor involved is a law designed to protect human life. Many violations of safety laws are infractions, which means that a person can be convicted regardless of mens rea.

Criminally negligent manslaughter[edit]

In jurisdictions such as Pennsylvania, if a person is so reckless as to "manifest extreme indifference to human life", the defendant may be guilty of aggravated assault as well as of involuntary manslaughter.[2]

In many jurisdictions such as California, malice may be found if gross negligence amounts to willful or depraved indifference to human life. In such a case, the wrongdoer may be guilty of second degree murder.[citation needed]

Vehicular manslaughter[edit]

Vehicular manslaughter is a class C felony which holds people liable for any death which occurs because of criminal negligence, or a violation of traffic safety laws. A common use of the vehicular manslaughter laws involves prosecution for a death caused by driving under the influence of intoxicating substances (determined by excessive blood alcohol content levels set by individual U.S. states), although an independent infraction (such as driving with a suspended driver's license), or negligence, is usually also required.[3][4]

In Wisconsin, a person who causes death with any type of motor vehicle while legally intoxicated may be liable and charged with homicide by intoxicated use of a motor vehicle. Culpability lies with the perpetrator. In 2003 the maximum prison term for conviction on that charge was reduced from 40 years to 15 years imprisonment. The length of sentence is now equivalent to a charge and conviction in Wisconsin of second-degree reckless homicide.[5] In Wisconsin, as in most states, vehicular homicide occurs when the act is not perpetrated during a felony, because driving while under the influence is not a felony.

In some U.S. states, such as Texas, intoxication manslaughter is a distinctly defined offense. A person commits intoxication manslaughter if he, or she, operates a motor vehicle in a public place, operates an aircraft, a watercraft, or an amusement ride, or assembles a mobile amusement ride while intoxicated and, by reason of that intoxication, causes the death of another by accident or mistake.[6]

Intoxication manslaughter, vehicular manslaughter and other similar offenses require a lesser mens rea than other manslaughter offenses. Furthermore, the fact that the defendant is entitled to use the alcohol, controlled substance, drug, dangerous drug, or other substance, is no defense.[7] For example, in Texas, to prove intoxication manslaughter, it is not necessary to prove the person was negligent in causing the death of another, nor that they unlawfully used the substance that intoxicated them, but only that they were intoxicated, and operated a motor vehicle, and someone died as a result. The same rule of law applies in New York for vehicular manslaughter in the second degree.[8]

Assisted suicide[edit]

In some U.S. states, assisted suicide is punishable as a second degree of manslaughter.[9]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ See, e.g., Manslaughter in the first degree, N.Y. State Penal Law section 125.20, found at N.Y. State Legislative web site (search for Penal Law § 125.20).
  2. ^ 18 Pa.C.S.A. § 2702
  3. ^ See, e.g., Vehicular Manslaughter in the first degree, N.Y. State Penal Law section 125.13 found at N.Y. State Legislative web site (search for Penal Law § 125.13).
  4. ^ Cf. Vehicular Manslaughter, Cal. Pen. Code § 192(c)(1) & (2) found at (search for 192.).
  5. ^ Wisconsin Legislative Reference Bureau.
  6. ^ Tex. Penal Code § 49.08.
  7. ^ TEX. PEN. CODE ANN. § 49.10; see also Nelson v. State, 149 S.W.3d 206, 211 (Tex. App.-Fort Worth 2004, no pet.).
  8. ^ See, Vehicular Manslaughter in the second degree, N.Y. State Penal Law section 125.12 found at N.Y. State Legislative web site (search for Penal Law § 125.12).
  9. ^ See, e.g., Manslaughter in the second degree, N.Y. State Penal Law section 125.15 found at N.Y. State Legislative web site (search for Penal Law § 125.15).