A person can sometimes defend against a criminal charge by showing that the allegedly illegal act was an accident. This legal defense will likely succeed so long as the accused had no criminal intent, was not acting with criminal negligence, and was engaged in lawful conduct at the time of the accident. If successful, the defense can serve to reduce a charge or to get one dismissed entirely.
To convict people of certain crimes, prosecutors often have to show that a defendant intended to commit a criminal offense or had the specific intent to commit some act.
With other crimes, a prosecutor has to show that a defendant acted with criminal negligence. “Criminal negligence” means that a person acts with a reckless disregard for human life.
Accident works as a defense because it negates a showing that an accused acted with a specific intent or with negligence.
A few examples of crimes where an accident defense may work include:
Our California criminal defense attorneys will explain the following in this article:
- 1. How does the defense of accident work?
- 2. When is there a lack of criminal intent?
- 3. What is an accident based on a lack of negligence?
- 4. Does the defense only work with lawful conduct?
- 5. What is the law in California?
1. How does the defense of accident work?
The law in most jurisdictions states that people who cause personal injury, property damage, or some other type of damage based on an accident or through misfortune have not committed a criminal act.
This is true provided that a person commits an accident and all of the following apply:
- the party had no criminal intent,
- the person did not act with criminal negligence, and
- the person was engaged in lawful conduct at the time of the accident.
To assert accident as a legal defense, the defendant has the burden to prove all of the above beyond a reasonable doubt.
Some crimes where the accident defense may successfully apply include:
- destroying or concealing evidence,
- false identification to a police officer,
- petty theft,
- domestic violence, and
2. When is there a lack of criminal intent?
Many laws say that criminal liability is only imposed when a person acts with an intent to commit some crime or some specific act.
“Intent” means that a person acts in a criminal case with a particular design, resolve, or determination.1
Accident works as a legal defense with intent crimes because the defense shows that a defendant did not act intentionally. Rather, he/she violated a law because of some mishap or misfortune.
Example: Pete and Michelle, husband and wife, get into an argument and Michelle asks her husband to leave the house. Before Pete leaves, Michelle runs to him and pulls him back by the shirt. As Pete turns to try and free himself, he accidently hits Michelle in the face and breaks her nose.
The district attorney later charges Pete with domestic violence, or the intentional harming of an intimate partner. Here, Pete’s best defense is to say that, while he did cause bodily injury to his wife, he did so by accident. He simply did not intentionally harm Michelle.
2.1. Accidental homicide
Note that accident can even work as a defense in murder or homicide cases.
While most jurisdictions have various degrees of murder, prosecutors usually have to show that a defendant acted with some form of intent to secure a guilty conviction. Therefore, accident acts as a legitimate defense if an accused can show that he/she killed someone on accident and without the necessary criminal intent.
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.
If a prosecutor later charges Steve with murder, he can successfully defend against the charge by showing that he did not kill Rich on purpose or with a specific intent to do so. While he punched Steve, Steve hit his head and died as an accident of the punch.
3. What is an accident based on a lack of negligence?
As with intent, accident can serve as a defense to show that a defendant did not act negligently.
Sometimes the conviction of certain crimes does not require a showing that a defendant acted intentionally. Rather, a prosecutor may have to show that a defendant acted with criminal negligence.
Most states say that a person acts with criminal negligence if he/she commits some act with a wanton or reckless disregard for human life.2
Accident can work as a defense in these cases because, depending on the facts of the case, accidental conduct shows that a defendant did not act with any type of recklessness.
Example: Bob, who is “buzzed,” is driving home from a party. He stops at a stop sign and accidentally puts his car in park.
Steve is driving a motor vehicle behind Bob. He does not realize that Bob’s car is in park and expects him to move forward. As Steve approaches the stop sign, he does not stop his car in time and rear ends Bob. As a result of the car accident/car crash, Steve cuts his head on his windshield.
A prosecutor later charges Bob with DUI causing injury, which requires a showing that a defendant was driving while intoxicated and also acted in a negligent manner while driving.
Here, Bob could successfully raise an accident defense/disclaimer to the charge. While he was driving under the influence, he did not commit another negligent act. He merely put his car into park by accident.
4. Does the defense only work with lawful conduct?
In accident cases, accident only works as a defense if an accused were engaged in lawful conduct at the time of the accident.
The defense does not work if a defendant caused a serious injury or property damage on accident while also committing a crime.
Example: Mike is driving under the influence of alcohol. He is driving in the right lane of traffic. He speeds up to try and 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.
A prosecutor later charges Mike with violating the following traffic laws, DUI, speeding, turning left from the right lane, hit and run, and reckless driving. Mike could not challenge any of the charges with the defense that he accidentally hit his accelerator. This is because he was committing the crime of DUI when he made his accident.
5. What is the law in California?
Under California law, defendants are free to raise the defense that they committed a crime or violated some criminal law on accident.
As with other jurisdictions, defendants will succeed with the defense if they can show that they:
- did not intend to do any harm,
- were not acting with criminal negligence, and
- were engaged in lawful conduct at the time of the accident.
Note that per California’s criminal laws, a prosecutor must show the following to prove that an accused acted with criminal negligence:
- he/she acted recklessly and created a high risk of death or great bodily injury, and
- a reasonable person would have known that these acts would create such a risk.3
It is important to note that criminal negligence involves:
- knowledge of a danger, and
- more than a mistake or excusable accident.
As with most other jurisdictions, an accused can even raise the accident defense in California in homicide cases.4
For additional help…
For additional guidance or to discuss your case with a criminal defense lawyer or personal injury attorney, we invite you to contact our law firm at the Shouse Law Group. Our attorneys provide both free consultations and legal advice you can trust.
Our lawyers also represent clients throughout California State, including those in Los Angeles, Ventura, Encino, and Van Nuys.
- Black’s Law Dictionary, Sixth Edition – “Intent.” See also Witters v. United States (1939), 106 F.2d 837.
- See, for example, Ruffin v. State (1970), 268 A.2d 494.
- Stringfield v. Superior Court (2016), 166 F.Supp. 3d 1144.
- See, for example, People v. Lara (1996), 44 Cal.App.4th 102.