Penalties for the federal crime of manslaughter do not include death or even a life sentence . . . but a conviction still carries several years in prison as well as astronomical fines.
On this page, our Las Vegas criminal defense attorneys provide a summary of the federal crime of "manslaughter" in Nevada. Topics covered include the definition of voluntary and involuntary manslaughter, common defenses, and possible penalties.
There are two types of homicide in federal law: Murder and manslaughter.
Murder is the most serious type of homicide and includes "premeditated killing" and "reckless killing" (such as by playing Russian Roulette). In contrast, manslaughter is defined as "the unlawful killing of a human being without malice." Manslaughter, in turn, is divided into two sub-types:
- Voluntary manslaughter, which is "heat of passion" killings, and
- Involuntary manslaughter, which comprises homicides caused by negligent behavior1
Scroll down to learn more about the distinctions between voluntary and involuntary manslaughter in federal law. For a discussion on federal murder laws, read our article on the federal crime of murder in Nevada.
The legal definition of voluntary manslaughter in federal law is a killing done "upon sudden quarrel or heat of passion." In other words, a provoking circumstance prompts the person to mentally "snap" and immediately inflict a fatal wound. Laughlin NV criminal defense attorney Michael Becker gives a classic example of voluntary manslaughter:
Example: Jonah comes back to his Las Vegas home early from work to find his wife in bed with another man. Enraged, Jonah immediately pulls the man out of bed and hurls him out the window. Jonah could be booked at the Clark County Detention Center on federal voluntary manslaughter charges because he killed the man in "the heat of passion."
Note that timing is very important when distinguishing between manslaughter and murder. If Jonah waited for even one second to attack the man, the prosecution could argue that Johah "cooled off" enough to have premeditated the killing and could, therefore, be liable for murder. A killing is voluntary manslaughter only when the defendant kills immediately after the inciting event.
The legal definition of involuntary manslaughter in federal law is either:
A killing done in the commission of an unlawful act not amounting to a felony, or
A killing done in the commission of a lawful act which might produce death if done in an unlawful manner or without due caution and circumspection
Involuntary manslaughter is often referred to as "negligent" killing because the death results more from the person's carelessness than mean-spiritedness. Goodsprings NV criminal defense attorney Neil Shouse offers an involuntary manslaughter scenario:
Example: Tim works in a lower school cafeteria in Reno. During a break one day he sits at a lunch table to take his prescription Xanax, and he accidentally leaves the pill bottle on the lunch table. During lunch, one of the kids takes all the pills and dies. If caught, Tim could be arrested by the U.S. Marshals Service and booked at the Washoe County Detention Center on federal involuntary manslaughter charges because he negligently left the pills where a child could be poisoned by them.
Note that it does not matter that Tim meant no harm or that he left the pills out by accident. Federal involuntary manslaughter law specifically encompasses unintended killings perpetrated by careless actions.
Note that involuntary manslaughter is similar to second-degree murder because they are both types of unintentional killing. The difference is that second-degree murder comprises more egregious circumstances where the defendant acts recklessly, not just negligently. However, the line between recklessness and negligence can be vague and may be litigated in the courtroom.
Federal law vs. Nevada law
The definition of manslaughter under federal law is nearly identical to the definition under state law in Nevada. The only difference is that federal law levies potentially harsher penalties upon a conviction. Learn more in our articles on the Nevada crime of voluntary manslaughter and the Nevada crime of involuntary manslaughter.
There are various defenses that may be very effective in fighting manslaughter allegations in federal court. Below are three common strategies a Nevada defense attorney may use in trial or when negotiating with the prosecution to reduce or dismiss the charges:
The defendant killed in self-defense: It is allowable under federal law for someone to kill in self-defense as long as the person reasonably believes that his/her life is being threatened. Whenever the defense attorney can demonstrate that the defendant's actions amounted to legal self-defense in Nevada, the defendant should not be held liable for manslaughter.
There is insufficient evidence to prove guilt: The most basic defense in all criminal cases is that the U.S. Attorney's Office cannot produce enough evidence to prove that the defendant is guilty. As long as the court finds that there is a reasonable doubt as to the defendant's guilt of federal manslaughter charges, the defendant should be acquitted.
The police mishandled the case: Police investigations necessarily involve searches and seizures of possible evidence. If law enforcement may have failed to follow proper constitutional procedures when gathering evidence in a federal manslaughter case, the defense attorney would then file a Nevada motion to suppress evidence, which asks the Nevada Federal Court to throw out any evidence unearthed from the illegal search. And if the judge then grants the motion to suppress, the prosecution may decide to dismiss the charges because they are left with insufficient evidence to prove guilt.
Punishments for a federal manslaughter conviction in Nevada turn on whether the manslaughter was voluntary or involuntary:
A conviction of voluntary manslaughter in Nevada federal court carries a fine and/or up to fifteen (15) years in Federal Prison.
A conviction of involuntary manslaughter in Nevada federal court carries a fine and/or up to eight (8) years in prison.
Note that all federal criminal cases in Nevada are heard in only one of two courthouses in Nevada: the Lloyd D. George Federal Courthouse in Las Vegas, or the Bruce R. Thompson Federal Courthouse in Reno.
A conviction of attempted voluntary manslaughter in federal court in Nevada carries a sentence of a fine and/or up to seven (7) years in prison.
Note that there is no such crime as "attempted involuntary manslaughter," because a person cannot attempt an involuntary act.
Nevada state manslaughter penalties
The maximum penalties for a manslaughter conviction under Nevada law are a little less harsh than the maximum penalties in federal law:
In Nevada state court, voluntary manslaughter is a category B felony in Nevada. A judge may impose up to ten (10) years in Nevada state prison and maybe a $10,000 fine.
Meanwhile, involuntary manslaughter is a category D felony in Nevada. The sentence includes up to four (4) years in prison and perhaps a $5,000 fine.
Charged? Call us . . . .
If you have been arrested on federal "manslaughter" charges in Nevada, our Nevada federal criminal defense attorneys at 702-DEFENSE (702-333-3673) can consult with you for free. Our promise is to deliver the best defense possible in an attempt to achieve the best resolution possible for your case.
(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—In the commission of an unlawful act not amounting to a felony, or in the commission in an unlawful manner, or without due caution and circumspection, of a lawful act which 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 or imprisoned not more than 8 years, or both.