Home Blog Criminal Negligence (Overview: Definition, Defenses, Elements)

Criminal Negligence (Overview: Definition, Defenses, Elements)

What is Criminal Negligence?

How do you legally define it?

What are the essential elements you should know!

Keep reading as we have gathered exactly the information that you need!

Let’s dig into our criminal law knowledge!

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What Is Criminal Negligence 

Criminal negligence is a legal concept referring to the behavior and conduct of a person performed while ignoring the risks associated with it or not caring for the life and safety of others.

In other words, a criminally negligent person is a person who has acted or behaved in such a negligent manner that he or she should be punished under criminal laws.

A person who fails to care for the safety of others may be charged with criminal negligence.

What’s different in a criminal negligence case from a standard crime is the element of intention.

Typically, the prosecutor must prove the act and the criminal intent beyond reasonable doubt to win a criminal case.

However, in a criminal negligence case, the prosecutor does not have to prove that the defendant had formulated the actual “intention” of hurting another.

Instead, the prosecutor must demonstrate that the defendant’s actions were so negligent and extreme that he or she should have known the possible risk of harming others.

Due to the defendant’s indifference and disregard for the others’ safety, the law will consider the defendant to have had criminal intent.


How do you define criminal negligence?

The legal definition of criminal negligence can be summarized as follows:

It’s a conduct that is considered to be an extreme departure from the manner an ordinary person would have acted if placed in the same context

This definition means that a person’s actions were so risky for the life and safety of others that a reasonable and ordinary person may have acted differently to avoid harm to others.

The definition of criminal negligence supposes a disregard for human life or indifference for the safety of others.


What elements does a prosecutor need to prove criminal negligence?

The elements to prove will depend on your specific jurisdiction but generally the prosecutor or the state will need to demonstrate:

  • The defendant acted in a reckless manner exposing others to body injuries or even death
  • A reasonable person in the same circumstances would have known that the conduct was reckless exposing others to injuries 

The evidence that the defendant knew or had knowledge of the danger is essential.

The prosecutor must demonstrate that the defendant was aware of the dangers and did not care, or the risks were so obvious that any reasonable person ought to have known.

The courts will assess to what extent the defendant’s actions were outrageous and departed from how an ordinary person would have acted in the same situation.

Burden of Proof

What is the burden of proof for the prosecutor to win a criminal negligence case?

In essence, just like any other criminal action, the prosecutor has to prove the elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt.

The elements of a crime are the act (or “actus reus”) and the criminal intent (“mens rea”).

In other words, the prosecutor must show that the defendant committed the act and acted in a criminally negligent manner having disregard for the safety and security of others.

For criminal negligence, the evidence must show, beyond doubt, that the accused:

  • Acted recklessly and created a high risk of injury or death for others (conduct was grossly negligent or outrageously reckless)
  • A reasonable person would have known that this conduct would expose others to high risk (it was more than just a simple mistake, inattention, or carelessness)

Let’s look at the element of intention.

Here, the evidence does not require the prosecutor to prove that the defendant had the intention to hurt or cause harm to another person.

Criminal negligence acts as a substitute for the element of intent.

The prosecutor will need to show that the defendant’s conduct was so negligent that it was “obvious” that another person may get hurt or the defendant ought to have “known” the risk.


What arguments can be invoked to defend against a criminal negligence accusation?

Let’s look at some of the best defense strategies:

  • The defendant made a mistake
  • The injury happened based on a pure accident
  • The defendant did not know of the risk
  • The defendant could not have known of the risk
  • The defendant was prudent and exercised care at the moment 

If the defendant can show that his or her conduct was not reckless but was the result of a mistake or bad judgment, then the prosecutor’s case may fall.

Regarding the knowledge of the risk of harm or injury, if the defendant can show that he or she did not know of the risk or could not have possibly known of the risk, that will also attack the second element of the prosecutor’s case.

The defense of reasonable care can also be considered if the defendant’s conduct was reasonable or did not deviate from what an ordinary person would have done in the same circumstances.


What are the punishments or possible sentences if found guilty of criminal negligence?

The sentence or punishment will undoubtedly depend on the nature of the accusation and what the criminal laws provide as possible consequences.

In most criminal matters, a person found guilty of criminal negligence will probably receive a jail sentence.

Should the gravity of the crime be less severe, the defendant may end up with fines, probation, or get community service.

Criminal Negligence vs Civil Negligence 

Is criminal and civil negligence the same thing?

The concept of criminal neglect and civil neglect is not the same thing.

When the legal theory of civil negligence is raised in a lawsuit, the plaintiff’s objective in a civil lawsuit is to seek and recover damages from the defendant.

Negligence is central in tort law and personal injury cases and centers around the fact that the defendant owed a duty of care to the plaintiff and breached such duty.

In essence, the plaintiff will argue that the defendant’s conduct fell short of a “reasonable person” in the same circumstances.

In a civil lawsuit, the burden of proof is the preponderance of evidence whereby the defendant’s conduct was negligent.

On the other hand, criminal negligence is a legal theory invoked by the prosecutor in a criminal case where the objective is to demonstrate that the defendant’s behavior was so reckless and risky that it posed a known or obvious risk to others.

Only a prosecutor can launch a criminal negligence action against another on behalf of the state.

Also, the danger was so obvious, or the defendant knew about it that the conduct could not be excused in any other way.

Criminal negligence will require more than a person making a mistake, acting in an inattentive manner, or simply careless. 

In a criminal lawsuit, the burden of proof is to prove the defendant was criminally negligent beyond a reasonable doubt.

Criminal Negligence vs Recklessness 

What sets criminal negligence apart from recklessness?

The distinction between criminal negligence and recklessness in criminal law is that the first requires for the defendant to have known of the risk whereas in the second case the defendant actually knew of the risk.

The notion of criminal negligence and criminal recklessness in some cases work hand-in-hand.

The Federal and State courts typically consider criminal negligence as a form of recklessness.

Imagine a parent leaving a minor child with a fully loaded gun or weapon.

If the child were to get injured or injure others, the parent might be considered to have acted in a criminally negligent manner.


What are some examples of criminal negligence?

Let’s look at a few examples of negligence in criminal law to illustrate the concept better.

A person can be charged and convicted of a criminal negligence crime in the following situations:

  • Firing a gun in the air during a concert
  • Leaving a child with a loaded weapon 
  • Driving a car at extreme speeds in a school zone
  • Playing games with a dangerous weapon 
  • Driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol 

Involuntary manslaughter cases are good examples of criminal negligence cases tried in court.

Essentially, when a person unintentionally kills another by adopting conduct or behavior that was criminally negligent, he or she could be charged and convicted of involuntary manslaughter.


So what is the legal definition of Criminal Negligence?

What does criminal negligence mean?

Let’s look at a summary of our findings.

Criminal Negligence Meaning

  • Criminal negligence refers to high-risk conduct committed by a person while disregarding the possibility that others are likely to be injured or possibly die
  • The prosecutor must prove the defendant’s act and show that the conduct severely deviates from that of an ordinary person in the same circumstances 
  • In many cases, criminal neglect refers to when a person should have been “aware” of the risk whereas a criminal reckless behavior is when the person “knew” of the risk and didn’t care 
  • Federal and state courts describe criminal negligence as a form of recklessness 
  • A private person can file a lawsuit based on civil negligence to recover damages from the defendant for the injuries caused whereas only the state can file a criminal negligence action against a person 
Beyond reasonable doubt 
Criminal lawyer 
Dangerous driving
Depraved indifference 
Gross negligence  
Malice aforethought 
Negligence definition
Preponderance of evidence
Reasonable person standard
Strict liability
Vehicular manslaughter
Comparative negligence
Criminal malpractice 
Culpable negligence 
Gross negligence 
Mala prohibita 
Medical negligence 
Pure comparative negligence

Editorial Staffhttps://lawyer.zone
Hello Nation! I'm a lawyer and passionate about law. I've practiced law in a boutique law firm, worked in a multi-national organization and as in-house counsel. I've been around the block! On this blog, I provide you with golden nuggets of information about lawyers, attorneys, the law and legal theories. Enjoy!


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