Accident as a Legal Defense under California Criminal Law

"I didn't do it on purpose. It was an accident." When is this a legal defense to a crime?

The answer, as you will see, can be rather complex.

By definition, an "accident" is unintentional.  Accidents are a given.  We live in a world full of busy, distracted individuals and...as a result...people suffer accidents every day.  An accidental shove on a sidewalk, a fender-bender, rolling your child's fingers up in a car window.  Some of these accidents are minor and are therefore often overlooked.

Some accidents, however, are not so trivial.  Not only do these more serious accidents sometimes cause injuries to others, but they can subject the individuals who cause them to serious criminal liability.  Accidentally burning a child, accidentally hitting a spouse, accidentally causing a car accident that kills another person...

In cases of accident or misfortune, generally speaking, California criminal law excuses your conduct.  This means that if

  1. you had no criminal intent to do harm,
  2. you were not acting negligently, and
  3. you were engaged in lawful conduct at the time of the accident

then the legal defense of accident should absolve you of any criminal liability.

In order to help you better understand how and when the California legal defense "accident" is applied, our Los Angeles criminal defense attorneys1 will address the following:

(Click on a title to proceed directly to that section)

1. Overview of Accident as a Legal Defense
2. Accident Based on a Lack of Criminal Intent
3. Accident Based on a Lack of Negligence

If, after reading this article, you would like more information, we invite you to contact us at Shouse Law Group.

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1. Overview of Accident as a California
Legal Defense

Simply put, California criminal law holds that people who cause injury or damage based on an accident or through misfortune have not committed a crime.

As Orange County criminal defense lawyer John Murray explains2, "'Accident' as a legal defense applies so long as the defendant has no criminal intent, no evil design, and didn't engage in any 'culpable' negligence.3 But it only applies when the defendant is otherwise engaged in lawful conduct."

To assert accident as a legal defense, the burden is on the defendant to prove that he/she acted with no criminal intent or culpable negligence.

So how do you prove that...at the time you injured another person...you acted without "evil design, intent, or culpable negligence"?  How do you prove that your conduct was truly the result of accident or misfortune?

2. Accident Based on Lack of Criminal Intent

Certain crimes like domestic battery and battery require that you act with a specific or general criminal intent.  In order to be guilty of these crimes you must

  1. specifically intend the result of your act, or
  2. at least have the general intent to do harm.

This means that if you injure another person, but not intentionally, California criminal law generally excuses your conduct.

Example: Tim wakes up his pregnant girlfriend Michaela in the middle of the night and asks her to make him something to eat.  When she refuses, they begin arguing.  Michaela runs into the bathroom and shuts the door.  Tim follows after her, and as he forcefully opens the door to enter, the door accidentally hits Michaela in the head.4

Example: Pete and Michelle are in an argument when Michelle asks Pete to leave her house.  Before he is gone, Michelle runs to him and pulls him by the back of his shirt.  When Pete turns around to free himself from Michelle's grasp, he accidentally hits her in the face and breaks her nose.5

These two California domestic violence law cases are good examples of how accident serves as a valid legal defense.  Tim was charged with violating Penal Code 273.5 PC, California's domestic battery law and Pete with violating Penal Code 242 PC, California's battery law.  Both require a willful intent to inflict force or violence upon another.6

Neither defendant intended to inflict force or violence upon his girlfriend.  Absent that intent, there is no criminal liability.  And although both women suffered injuries as a result of the acts, they were purely the result of accident and misfortune.  

Accident could also be a helpful defense to the California felony crime of aiding a suicide.  If you deliberately help someone else commit suicide, you can be charged with this offense under Penal Code 401 PC. However, if you unwittingly provided them with the means to kill themselves--lent them a gun not knowing that they would use it to kill themselves, for example--you are not guilty because you didn't act with the necessary intent.

But...

If you are engaged in otherwise unlawful conduct at the time of your accident, California criminal law typically doesn't excuse your behavior.

Example: Mike...who is DUI...is driving in the right lane  of traffic.  He speeds up to try to pass a car on the left so that he can make a left turn.  During the turn, Mike accidentally hits the accelerator instead of the brake, causing him to cross over into oncoming traffic where he hits another car.

Even though he accidentally hit the accelerator instead of the brake, he was still guilty of California Vehicle Code 23152 VC driving under the influence7, speeding, and turning left from the right turn lane.  Because all of these acts were unlawful...and intentional...the accidental acceleration isn't excused.

Accidental homicide

What about the very serious case of homicide?  Accident serves as a legal defense to homicide if you can prove that you lacked the necessary criminal intent.8

Example: Steve and Rich are at a bar.  Steve's rowdy behavior is irritating Rich, who confronts Steve.  After Rich threatens Steve, Steve hits Rich, knocking him to the ground.  Rich gets up, hits Steve and Steve returns the punch.  This time, Rich falls back and hits his head on a barstool.  Rich becomes unconscious and dies the next day.9

Steve...who was provoked and responding to Rich's attack...didn't intend to kill Rich.  Under these circumstances, he accidentally killed Rich and would be entitled to an acquittal of any murder or manslaughter charges.  He would still, however, be guilty of a battery.
3. Accident Based on a Lack of Negligence

When a crime doesn't call for a specific or general intent, California criminal law excuses your lawful accidental conduct as long as you weren't culpably negligent.

"Culpable" negligence has traditionally been defined as "criminal" negligence.10 A person acts with "criminal negligence" under California law when he/she exhibits a reckless disregard for life and an "I don't care what happens" attitude.11

Let's look at a few examples:

Example: Charles...driving his car at night...comes to a crosswalk.  Another car stops at the crosswalk to his left.  While stopped, two pedestrians cross the street in the crosswalk, from Charles's right to his left.  After the pedestrians pass his car, he begins to drive off.

What Charles doesn't see...due to the stopped car on his left...is that an oncoming car is going to hit the pedestrians, so they turn and run back towards Charles's car.  Charles hits them as they do so.

Charles yielded his right of way to the pedestrians and had no reason to suspect that they were going to turn around to again cross his path.  He did not act with criminal negligence when he drove forward...and the fact that Charles hit the victims was purely accidental.12
Example: Lucille runs a pizza restaurant that offers vegan pizzas using soy cheese instead of real cheese. One day a new employee mixes up the labels on the soy and regular cheese, and Lucille does not realize this. This leads to a number of vegan customers being served and eating real cheese.
Lucille may have been negligent in her training and supervision of the new employee. But because the negligence doesn't rise to the level of "criminal negligence," she is not guilty of Health and Safety Code 114087 HS mislabeling food.

Only lawful accidental conduct is excused

It bears repeating that California criminal law only excuses your lawful accidental conduct.

Example: John believes Rick is sleeping with his wife.  John goes to Rick's house intending to threaten and scare Rick.  He doesn't believe that the gun he's going to use to threaten Rick is loaded. But it is. As he pulls the gun from his waistband, he accidentally fires it, shooting Rick in the leg.

Although John didn't intend to shoot and injure Rick, he intended to threaten him. This is prohibited under Penal Code 422 PC, California's criminal threats law13.  Moreover, he acted with criminal negligence when he threatened Rick with a gun that he didn't confirm to be empty.  Given these facts, California criminal law would hold John responsible for the shooting.

Sometimes "ordinary" negligence is enough to rule out an accident

As we discussed, generally to be convicted of a crime you need to be acting with at least culpable negligence.  One exception to this rule involves vehicular manslaughter.

California's vehicular manslaughter law punishes killing another person while driving even if you aren't guilty of driving with criminal negligence.  Under this law, even "ordinary" negligence can subject you to this charge.14

Example: Let's change the facts from one of the earlier examples.  Suppose that Charles stops at the stop sign at the intersection.  He looks down to change a CD and then continues to drive.  Because he is looking down, he doesn't see the pedestrians that are crossing in front of the car to his right.  Charles hits them as he drives forward, killing one of them instantly.

Charles's conduct of changing the CD instead of looking to see if any pedestrians were coming...and therefore failing to yield the right of way to those pedestrians...doesn't rise to the level of criminal negligence.  It is, however, still a negligent act that will therefore negate his successful plea of an accident defense.

Subsequent Conduct

On a final note, it should be noted that subsequent conduct maybe criminal even though the initial injury is the result of an accident.

Example: Again, borrowing from the first Charles example...suppose that after hitting the pedestrians, Charles flees the scene.  Even though his act of hitting the pedestrians under the first scenario is excused as an accident, the accident does not excuse the hit and run.

Under these facts, prosecutors could charge Charles with Vehicle Code 20001VC, California's felony hit and run law15.
Contact us for help...
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If you or loved one is in need of help with using accidents as a legal defense and you are looking to hire an attorney for representation, we invite you to contact us at Shouse Law Group. We can provide a free consultation in office or by phone. We have local offices in Los Angeles, the San Fernando Valley, Pasadena, Long Beach, Orange County, Ventura, San Bernardino, Rancho Cucamonga, Riverside, San Diego, Sacramento, Oakland, San Francisco, San Jose and throughout California.

Additionally, we have law offices located in Reno and Las Vegas.  For information relating to Nevada's legal defenses, we invite you to contact our Nevada criminal defense attorneys at one of our local Nevada law offices.16

Legal References:

1Our Los Angeles criminal defense attorneys have local law offices in Beverly Hills, Burbank, Glendale, Lancaster, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Pasadena, Pomona, Torrance, Van Nuys, West Covina, and Whittier.

2Orange County criminal defense lawyer John Murray represents clients throughout Orange County, including Newport Beach, Fullerton, Laguna Beach, Irvine, Santa Ana, Anaheim and Westminster.

3California Penal Code 26 PC -- Persons capable of committing crime; exceptions.  ("All persons are capable of committing crimes except those belonging to the following classes...Five--Persons who committed the act or made the omission charged through misfortune or by accident, when it appears that there was no evil design, intention, or culpable negligence...")

4People v. Gonzales (1999) 74 Cal.App.4th 382

5People v. Lara (1996) 44 Cal.App.4th 102

6California Penal Code 273.5 PC -- Domestic battery.  ("(a) Any person who willfully inflicts upon a person who is his or her spouse, former spouse, cohabitant, former cohabitant, or the mother or father of his or her child, corporal injury resulting in a traumatic condition, is guilty of a felony, and upon conviction thereof shall be punished by imprisonment in the state prison for two, three, or four years, or in a county jail for not more than one year, or by a fine of up to six thousand dollars ($6,000) or by both that fine and imprisonment.")

See also California Penal Code 242 PC -- Battery.  ("A battery is any willful and unlawful use of force or violence upon the person of another.")  This statute, as well as the California domestic violence statute above, both require a willful use of force, which is why you can't negligently be guilty of these offenses.

7California Vehicle Code 23152 -- Driving under the influence.  ("(a) It is unlawful for any person who is under the influence of any alcoholic beverage or drug, or under the combined influence of any alcoholic beverage and drug, to drive a vehicle. (b) It is unlawful for any person who has 0.08 percent or more, by weight, of alcohol in his or her blood to drive a vehicle.")

8California Penal Code 195 -- Excusable homicide.  ("Homicide is excusable in the following cases: [1] When committed by accident and misfortune, or in doing any other lawful act by lawful means, with usual and ordinary caution, and without any unlawful intent. [2] When committed by accident and misfortune, in the heat of passion, upon any sudden and sufficient provocation, or upon a sudden combat, when no undue advantage is taken, nor any dangerous weapon used, and when the killing is not done in a cruel or unusual manner.")

9These facts are loosely borrowed from People v. Hampton (1929) 273 P. 854.

10People v. Thurmond (1985) 175 Cal.App.3d 865, 873.  ("As a matter of law, ordinary negligence, sufficient for recovery in a civil trial, will not suffice to establish culpable negligence in a criminal trial. (People v. Peabody, supra, 46 Cal.App.3d at p. 47, 119 Cal.Rptr. 780.) The conduct must be "aggravated or reckless." It "must be such a departure from what would be the conduct of an ordinarily prudent person under the same circumstances as to be incompatible with a proper regard for human life." ( Ibid.)")

11People v. Peabody (1975) 46 Cal.App.3d 43, 47.  ("...Penal Code section 20 states that in every crime there must exist a union or joint operation of act, intent, or criminal negligence. [California Penal Code] Section 20 makes criminal intent or negligence an invariable element of every crime unless excluded from the statutory definition either expressly or by necessary implication. (People v. Stuart, 47 Cal.2d 167, 171 [302 P.2d 5, 55 A.L.R.2d 705].) Moreover, Penal Code section 26, subdivision Six lists among the persons incapable of committing crimes those "who committed the act or made the omission charged through misfortune or by accident, when it appears that there was no evil design, intention, or culpable negligence...Where negligence is required as a predicate for a criminal act, a fundamental question arises: what quantum of negligence is required? Clearly, ordinary negligence sufficient for recovery in a civil action will not suffice; to constitute a criminal act the defendant's conduct must go beyond that required for civil liability and must amount to a "gross" or "culpable" departure from the required standard of care. (See People v. Penny, 44 Cal.2d 861, 879 [285 P.2d 926]; People v. Rodriguez, 186 Cal.App.2d 433, 440 [8 Cal.Rptr. 863]; 1 Witkin, Cal. Crimes, � 65, pp. 69-70.) The conduct must be aggravated or reckless; that is, it must be such a departure from what would be the conduct of an ordinarily prudent person under the same circumstances as to be incompatible with a proper regard for human life. The conduct must show an indifference to the consequences, and this has been said to require knowledge, actual or imputed, that the act tends to endanger another's life...[which is the current standard of criminal negligence under California criminal law] ( People v. Penny, supra, 44 Cal.2d 861, 879.)")

12People v. McLachlan (1939) 36 Cal.App.2d Supp. 754

13California Penal Code 422 PC-- Criminal threats.  ("Any person who willfully threatens to commit a crime which will result in death or great bodily injury to another person, with the specific intent that the statement, made verbally, in writing, or by means of an electronic communication device, is to be taken as a threat, even if there is no intent of actually carrying it out, which, on its face and under the circumstances in which it is made, is so unequivocal, unconditional, immediate, and specific as to convey to the person threatened, a gravity of purpose and an immediate prospect of execution of the threat, and thereby causes that person reasonably to be in sustained fear for his or her own safety or for his or her immediate family's safety, shall be punished by imprisonment in the county jail not to exceed one year, or by imprisonment in the state prison.")

14California Penal Code 192(c)(2) PC -- Vehicular Manslaughter.  ("(c)(2) Driving a vehicle in the commission of an unlawful act, not amounting to felony, but without gross negligence; or driving a vehicle in the commission of a lawful act which might produce death, in an unlawful manner, but without gross negligence" is a violation of California's vehicular manslaughter law.)

15California Vehicle Code 20001 VC -- Felony hit and run.  ("(a) The driver of a vehicle involved in an accident resulting in injury to a person, other than himself or herself, or in the death of a person shall immediately stop the vehicle at the scene of the accident and shall fulfill the requirements of [California Vehicle Code] Sections 20003 and 20004.")

16Please feel free to contact our Nevada criminal defense attorneys Michael Becker and Neil Shouse for any questions relating to Nevada's criminal laws.

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