Involuntary Manslaughter Sentence: What Do Lawyers Need to Know?

Involuntary manslaughter is different from other types of homicide because, prior to the murder, the individual had no premeditation and had no intent to kill. Instead, the murder is committed either by criminal negligence or reckless behavior. Examples include driving under the influence, street racing, reckless discharge of a firearm, or certain physical fights. This differs from voluntary manslaughter, in which the murder was intentional.

Because the murder was not premeditated nor deliberate, involuntary manslaughter sentences are much less harsh than purposeful homicide cases, such as first- or second-degree murder. The exact sentences and punishments handed out differ depending on the laws of each state. However, no matter where in the U.S. the crime takes place, it is treated as a felony and there will be some form of a conviction.

Involuntary Manslaughter Sentences: Federal Penalties

At the federal level, involuntary manslaughter is seen as a Class C felony offense. Other crimes that fall under this category include stalking someone online or carjacking. Compared to Class A felonies such as first-degree murder and rape, or Class B felonies such as robbery and kidnapping, involuntary manslaughter is seen as a lesser crime with less serious punishments attached. It is worth noting that this form of homicide is Class C, voluntary manslaughter is a Class B offense because it is a deliberate act in the heat of the moment.

According to federal sentencing guidelines, the sentence for involuntary manslaughter would be a base penalty of 10 to 16 months imprisonment. Yet, the criminal record of the defendant will affect the charges given. When a person is facing multiple criminal offenses, has committed more than one case of involuntary manslaughter, or has had any previous convictions, the penalty will increase. Any maritime case that has been committed at sea caps the imprisonment at eight years, plus any fines deemed appropriate.

There are also certain federal laws in place for juveniles, which usually have the case handed over to the state where it took place to determine an appropriate punishment for involuntary manslaughter. In some specific cases and where it is of best interest to the country, juveniles will be taken to federal court. However, there is no separate sentencing for minors in federal court and they will face the same sentencing as adults who have committed the same crimes.  

Involuntary Manslaughter Sentences: State Penalties

sentence for involuntary manslaughter

The number of years imprisonment for involuntary manslaughter at the state level depends on the laws of each specific jurisdiction. According to state law, the crime is typically classified as either a Class C or Class D felony, and the associated punishments given in each state vary widely. However, in all states, the offense is punishable by imprisonment and/or fines.

Most states will not have one single sentence across the board, rather several that judges can choose from depending on the information presented for each case and whether any mitigating or aggravating factors apply. Mitigating factors will lessen the severity of the punishments and include:

  • The defendant has no previous criminal history or convictions.
  • The person being convicted shows true signs of remorse and guilt for the incident.
  • The likelihood that the defendant will reform and take responsibility for their actions.
  •  If the person has a mental or physical illness that is partially to blame for the felony.
  • Specifics surrounding the case.

Conversely, aggravating factors can make the sentence more severe, increasing the time served or fines paid for involuntary manslaughter. These include a previous history of reckless behavior or other manslaughter offenses, and whether reckless behavior contributed to the incident, such as a driver while intoxicated in a road traffic accident. If a child, elderly, disabled, or mentally ill person or a member of law enforcement or military operations is killed, the charges are also harsher.

Examples of Sentences for Involuntary Manslaughter

The specific penalties for involuntary manslaughter vary depending on the state, and for this reason, it is useful to look at some examples of how punishment for a single crime could vary. One of the most common types of unintended murder cases is death from road traffic accidents, also called vehicular manslaughter. With vehicular manslaughter, a major contributing factor to the sentence given is whether the driver was intoxicated or not, which often comes with the most severe penalties of all involuntary manslaughter cases.

In Alabama, an individual with no previous criminal offenses who was intoxicated while driving a vehicle and accidentally killed an individual could face up to 10 years imprisonment and be forced to pay up to $15,000 in fines. Comparatively, Washington classes this crime as a Class A felony. As such, the defendant could have a sentence of life imprisonment and up to $50,000 in fines. This demonstrates how different the laws vary from state to state. Many vehicle-related cases will also result in a license suspension for several years.

For another example, let us look at a case resulting from criminal negligence. In Connecticut, this is categorized as a Class A misdemeanor and the person will be charged with up to one year in state prison and up to $2,000 in fines. Yet, in Colorado, penalties go up to three years of imprisonment, two years of mandatory parole, and $100,000 in fines. In New York, you are looking at four years in jail, whereas in Oregon you could face up to 10 years in jail and fines of up to $250,000.  

Defenses of Involuntary Manslaughter Charges

sentences for manslaughter

Any lawyer working on an involuntary manslaughter case needs to have a strong defense. Despite charges not being as harsh as murder, some states still offer severe punishments and penalties which vary dramatically from case to case and can be dropped substantially with a strong defense. An attorney looking to get charges reduced could form a defense based on:

  • Accidental Death: One way to argue against the charges is to prove it was an accidental death and not one of due negligence or recklessness.
  • Self-Defence: Any murders that were committed in an act of self-defense are not classified as involuntary manslaughter and charges will be reduced.
  • Wrongful Arrest: Finding and proving with substantial evidence that the wrong person is being held responsible for the crime will result in acquittal.
  • Insufficient Evidence: A lawyer could also argue that the prosecution does not have enough evidence to prove the crime beyond reasonable doubt.

It is also the job of a lawyer to look at all the mitigating and aggravating factors to try and achieve the best possible outcome for their client.

Final Thoughts

Sentences for involuntary manslaughter typically include at least one year in prison and fines for the offenders. However, exactly what charges and punishments apply depends on whether it is being treated as a federal or state case. If an issue for the state, the laws of each jurisdiction also vary, as do the associated punishments. The circumstances surrounding each case also bears weight on the charges given. In some states, incidences as a result of criminal negligence have minor punishments and are classified as a misdemeanor, whereas murder caused by driving while intoxicated could lead to a second-degree murder charge.

Article by Yevheniia Savchenko

Yevheniia Savchenko is a Legal Writer at Lawrina. Yevheniia browses through the most interesting and relevant news in the legal and legaltech world and collects them on Lawrina’s blog. Also, Yevheniia composes various how-to guides on legaltech, plus writes product articles and release notes for Loio, AI-powered contract review and drafting software.

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