Home Law Facts Law Terms Voluntary vs involuntary manslaughter – definition and punishment

Voluntary vs involuntary manslaughter – definition and punishment

Involuntary manslaughter

There are peculiar distinguishing factors when considering how Voluntary vs Involuntary Manslaughter differ from each other.

Even though manslaughter generally refers to the unintentional loss of life caused by a person’s behavior, there are various forms of it which determines what charge a suspect will face and the corresponding punishment if found guilty.

In this article, we take a look at the types of manslaughter, charges and sentencing if found culpable. Read on to know more.

What is manslaughter

Manslaughter is a term used to describe the loss of life resulting from a person’s action, which by all intents and purposes was not meant to kill. Such acts can be road accidents resulting in death and caused by the negligent and reckless operation of a vehicle.

Aforethought intent and malice plays a critical role in determining whether such death qualifies as murder or manslaughter. Like in the case of a road accident caused by a drunk driver, it may not be the intention of the driver from the onset to kill anyone, but his reckless disregard for human life led to the death of a person.

Difference between manslaughter and murders

The main difference between a loss of life being classified as manslaughter or murder is prior intent of malice. A person commits manslaughter when they had no prior or malicious intent to kill, but their negligent action led to the loss of life.

On the other hand, malice aforethought is a central and indispensable factor of the crime of murder. Murder therefore is intentional, planned and executed.

Types of Manslaughter

There are two main types of manslaughter, and the circumstances peculiar to the incident leading to the loss of life will determine which form of manslaughter it is and to what degree, as determined by the relevant laws of the state. The types of manslaughter are:

  1. Voluntary manslaughter
  2. involuntary manslaughter
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Voluntary manslaughter

A person is guilty of voluntary manslaughter if he intentionally takes the life another person under the influence of extreme emotional disturbance in the absence of prior expressed or implied intention to kill.

Ordinarily, it would qualify as murder if one kills another, but the law makes room for what is called heat of passion.

The law recognizes that, in a circumstance where one acts in the heat of passion, they have little room to think about the consequences of their action. Voluntary manslaughter is still a serious charge but if the heat of passion element is established, it doesn’t qualify as murder.

voluntary manslaughter
heat of passion

Heat of passion

Heat of passion is when during a situation of extreme provocation, the person’s ability to reason is obscured or distorted due to passion, in a way that any ordinary person with a normal, fair reasoning will be susceptible to acting in a way that is irrational, without proper thought or reflection, and based on the emotion rather than from judgment.

This provision of the law allows society to distinguish between a cold-hearted or serial killer and a person who became a killer by circumstance.

Examples of situations that can qualify under heat of passion include:

  • Man walking in on another having an affair with their spouse and in the heat of intense anger from the obvious provocation, his reaction to the situation leads to the death of the other, it may qualify as voluntary manslaughter instead of murder.

In the example above, if the man did nothing in that instance, but rather tailed the man home and killed him, that would constitute murder since it is deemed that adequate time has elapsed for him to have thought about the consequences of their action.

Imperfect Self-defense

Another instance where voluntary manslaughter may apply instead of murder, is imperfect self defense. This is a legal terminology that refers to a situation where a person uses excessive force that is not commensurate with the threat, in an act of self-defense, that leads to the death of the other person.

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While such action action doesn’t qualify fully as self-defense for the overly use of force, it doesn’t also qualify as murder since the element of prior expressed or implied intent to kill is absent.

Voluntary manslaughter punishment

The sentence for voluntary manslaughter is dependent on the state statutes. According to the federal sentencing guideline, a person found guilty of voluntary manslaughter faces up to 10 years in prison, fines or both.

In California for example, voluntary manslaughter punishment under the Penal Code 192(a) PC recommends a prison time of between 3 and 11 years in prison.

Voluntary manslaughter is a strike offense in California. If convicted, the defendant receives a strike on their record. This means on their next felony conviction, the sentence would be double to life imprisonment.

Involuntary manslaughter

A person is guilty of involuntary manslaughter when their reckless or criminally negligent behavior leads to the death of another or during the commission of a crime without an aforethought intent to kill.

Sometimes the criminal negligence or recklessness results while engaging in a perfectly legal endeavor, only that the negligent action deviates from the established and standard process or way of performing that duty.

Involuntary manslaughter

Examples of involuntary manslaughter

  • Reckless driving that leads to the death of another (E.g. driving under influence),
  • Carrying a loaded firearm which accidentally discharges and kills someone,
  • Bar fight which leads to the death of another,
  • Doctor failing to wash hands between patients and transferring infection which leads to the death of patient,
  •  illegal prescriptions that lead to death of patient,
  • Cop mistakenly drawing a pistol instead of Taser or stun gun and fatally shooting an unarmed person to death.

Involuntary manslaughter sentence

A person found guilty of committing involuntary manslaughter faces a prison sentence from ten months and up to 16 months according to the federal sentencing guideline. State sentencing may differ but most are coined from the federal guideline.

California involuntary manslaughter sentence

According to the California Penal Code 1170 (h) involuntary manslaughter sentence ranges from two to four years imprisonment in county jail.

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Michigan involuntary manslaughter sentence

In Michigan, involuntary manslaughter is a felony offense punishable by up to 15 years in prison and up to $7500 in fines.

Several factors affect what sentence is handed out and these can be aggravating or mitigating. Aggravating elements which can elicit harsher punishment include criminal history of defendant, nature of reckless behavior especially in auto homicides. Mitigating factors can lead to lenient sentences and these can include remorse, responsibility and a clean criminal history.

2nd degree manslaughter

Manslaughter of the second degree is one and the same as involuntary manslaughter in their legal definition and refers to the killing of another by a person without malice or the ill-intent to kill in the first place.

Attempted manslaughter

An attempted manslaughter charge refers to an instance whereby a criminally negligent behavior or action leads to the victim sustaining severe bodily harm but does not die.

In an auto accident, if others sustain severe and life-threatening bodily harm by the reckless activity of a driver such as not slowing down in a construction area or driving under the influence, other charges such as aggravated vehicular assault can apply.

Voluntary vs Involuntary Manslaughter

The main difference between voluntary and involuntary manslaughter is that, while voluntary manslaughter is committed under the heat of passion or an imperfect self-defense, involuntary manslaughter results from a criminally negligent behavior that leads to the loss of another’s life.


Voluntary vs Involuntary manslaughter are distinguishable from each other by the way and manner in which the manslaughter occurred. Both are serious criminal offenses which carry a sentence of prison time, fines, or both and in some instances, restitution to the family of the victim.

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