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Voluntary and Involuntary Manslaughter - 18 U.S.C. § 1112

Where the crime of murder is defined as the premeditated killing of a human being "with malice aforethought," the lesser crime of manslaughter involves situations where the offender might not have had a deliberate intent to kill but ended up causing death through illegal actions or negligence. 

All states have laws penalizing manslaughter, but in parts of the U.S. not covered by these state laws (i.e., the "special maritime and territorial jurisdiction of the U.S."), manslaughter becomes a federal crime under 18 U.S.C. 1112. If convicted under this law, you could face time in a federal prison, depending on the circumstances.

Manslaughter is the unlawful killing without malice, including voluntary or involuntary.

Section 1112 of Title 18 describes manslaughter as the unlawful killing of a human being without malice and includes voluntary and involuntary. Voluntary manslaughter is punishable by imprisonment, a fine, or both, and involuntary manslaughter is punishable by imprisonment, a fine, or both.

18 U.S. Code 1112 Manslaughter says, “(a) Manslaughter is the unlawful killing of a human being without malice. It is of two kinds:

Voluntary—Upon a sudden quarrel or heat of passion.

Involuntary—The commission of an unlawful act not amounting to a felony or in an unlawful manner, or without due caution and circumspection, of a lawful act that might produce death.

(b) Within the special maritime and territorial jurisdiction of the United States,
Whoever is guilty of voluntary manslaughter shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 15 years, or both.

Whoever is guilty of involuntary manslaughter shall be fined under this title, imprisoned for not more than eight years, or both.

State laws govern most homicides and violent crimes. Still, the federal government has jurisdiction over certain areas like federal lands, Native American territory, federal facilities, United States vessels, etc.

Simply put, Section 1112 allows federal prosecution of manslaughter in these jurisdictions. It was enacted in 1948 as part of the original federal criminal code.

Voluntary vs. Involuntary Manslaughter

Title 18 U.S.C. 1112 identifies explicitly two types of manslaughter: voluntary and involuntary.

Voluntary Manslaughter

Voluntary Manslaughter
Voluntary manslaughter is defined as a killing "upon a sudden quarrel or heat of passion."

18 U.S.C. 1112 defines voluntary manslaughter as a killing "upon a sudden quarrel or heat of passion"—in other words, without prior intent to kill. The key distinction from murder lies in the absence of premeditation. 

If someone provokes you to a degree that would inflame a reasonable person's temper, causing you to lose self-control and commit the act, it falls under this category.

EXAMPLE: John walks in on his wife in a compromising situation with another individual. Flooded by shock and rage, John reacts impulsively, grabs a blunt object, and begins striking the individual on the head. The individual dies from their injuries. John can be charged with voluntary manslaughter for acting in the heat of passion.

Involuntary Manslaughter

Involuntary manslaughter is a less severe form of manslaughter that involves unintentional killing as a result of recklessness or criminal negligence. 18 U.S.C. 1112 specifically categorizes this crime as a killing occurring in one of two ways: 

  • While committing an "unlawful act not amounting to a felony"; or
  • While committing a lawful act "in an unlawful manner, or without due caution and circumspection." 

EXAMPLE: David is driving too fast down a two-lane highway, arguing with a passenger, and not paying attention to the road. He fails to spot a pedestrian on the side of the road and hits the pedestrian while swerving, killing him. David can be charged with involuntary manslaughter because the death resulted from a lack of due care or disregard for human life without any intent to kill.

Jurisdiction of 18 U.S.C. 1112

The federal crime of manslaughter is enforceable within the "special maritime and territorial jurisdiction of the United States." This includes: 

  • Federal land (national parks, military bases, federal buildings).
  • Any vessel flying the American flag on international waters.
  • Any U.S. aircraft flying over international waters (including U.S. spacecraft in space).
  • Territories under U.S. control that are not within any state boundaries; and
  • Any place outside the jurisdiction of any country where the perpetrator or victim is a U.S. national.

What are Related Federal Offenses?

18 U.S. Code Chapter 51, Homicide, has several federal statutes related to 18 U.S.C. 1112, manslaughter, including the following: 

  • 18 U.S.C. 1111 – Murder,
  • 18 U.S.C. 1113 - Attempt to commit murder or manslaughter,
  • 18 U.S.C. 1114 - Protection of officers and employees of the United States,
  • 18 U.S.C. 1115 - Misconduct or neglect of ship officers,
  • 18 U.S.C. 1116 - Murder or manslaughter of foreign officials, official guests, or internationally protected persons,
  • 18 U.S.C. 1117 - Conspiracy to murder,
  • 18 U.S.C. 1118 - Murder by a Federal prisoner,
  • 18 U.S.C. 1119 - Foreign murder of United States nationals,
  • 18 U.S.C.1120 - Murder by escaped prisoners,
  • 18 U.S.C. 1121 - Killing persons aiding Federal investigations or State correctional officers,
  • 18 U.S.C. 1122 - Protection against the human immunodeficiency virus

What are the Potential Penalties?

The distinction between voluntary and involuntary manslaughter significantly affects the legal outcomes and penalties involved. Voluntary manslaughter is considered more severe due to the intentional aspect of the heat of passion. 

In contrast, involuntary manslaughter underscores the lack of intent but recognizes the negligence or recklessness of the actions leading to death. Both types of manslaughter under federal law require a detailed examination of the circumstances surrounding the death, the accused's state of mind, and the actions that led to the fatality.

If convicted of federal voluntary manslaughter, you could face:

  • Fines of up to $250,000 and
  • Up to 15 years in federal prison.

If convicted of federal involuntary manslaughter, you could face:

  • Fines of up to $250,000 and
  • Up to 8 years in federal prison.

These sentences are subject to aggravating or mitigating factors, including the circumstances of the offense and the defendant's criminal history.

What are Common Defenses?

A skilled federal criminal defense attorney may employ several defense strategies in response to manslaughter charges. These include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Self-Defense: Arguing that the killing was a necessary action to protect oneself from imminent harm.
  • Accident: Demonstrating that the death was a tragic accident occurring without negligence or unlawful intent.
  • Insanity: Asserting that you were temporarily or permanently incapable of understanding the nature of your actions due to mental illness. This defense may result in institutionalization.
  • Mistake of Fact: Claiming a misunderstanding or lack of awareness led to the unintentional act.

Contact our federal criminal defense law firm for more information. Eisner Gorin LLP is based in Los Angeles, CA.

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