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Understanding involuntary manslaughter laws in Pennsylvania

Murder, legally speaking, is a very complicated business.

Intentional homicides are clearly crimes but may be broken up into degrees. First-degree murder, second-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter are all variances on the intentional killing of another person (or an intentional act that had the high probability of ending in someone's death, like a kidnapping, bank robbery or beating).

Involuntary manslaughter, however, is a wholly different type of crime. It still involves a death. It is still a type of murder.

However, under Pennsylvania law, involuntary manslaughter is an unintentional killing that still deserves to be punished. It's more than a simple accident -- but less than anything that required actual malice and intentional thought.

In fact, it may be best described as a "thoughtless murder," because it usually comes up as a charge related to something like drunk driving or another foolish, reckless action.

Why would a prosecutor seek to add charges like involuntary manslaughter to a drunk driving charge? There could be several reasons:

  • It could be partially based on principle, particularly if the victims were highly sympathetic and there's been a lot of media coverage -- prosecutors can often feel pressured into adding charges if the victims were children, college students, young mothers or pregnant women, for example.
  • It could be to prevent ongoing danger to society. If this isn't your first drunk driving charge the prosecutor could be adding the charge to try to put you behind bars in order to keep you off the road.
  • It could be to serve as a lesson to others -- sometimes the best deterrent to a crime is to see someone else get punished for it.

While an involuntary manslaughter charge is just a misdemeanor under Pennsylvania law, it still carries the potential of up to five years in jail.

In addition, it's important to understand that voluntary drunkenness is never considered a valid defense to involuntary manslaughter.

If you're facing an involuntary manslaughter charge related to drunk driving, seek legal help as quickly as possible.

Source: FindLaw, "Pennsylvania Involuntary Manslaughter Laws," accessed Nov. 10, 2017

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