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Accident as a Defense in Criminal Cases

What is an Accident Defense?

When someone is charged with a crime, prosecutors often must prove a defendant had an intent to commit the offense or had a specific intent to commit an act. In other situations, they have to establish a defendant acted with criminal negligence, meaning they acted with a wanton disregard for the safety of others.

Accident as a Defense in Criminal Cases
In some criminal charges, a defendant might be able to use the legal defense it was an accident.

It can be a legal defense to a criminal charge that the defendant's conduct was an accident in certain circumstances. In other words, the accused could sometimes defend against their case by showing the alleged act was an accident. For this defense to be successful, the defendant must show that:

  • They did not have criminal intent,
  • They were not acting with criminal negligence, and
  • They were acting lawfully when the accident took place.

The “accident” serves as a valid defense because it shows a defendant didn't act with the required specific intent or criminal negligence.  A typical example is when a spouse was accidentally injured in a domestic violence dispute with her husband.

If the defendant can demonstrate these three factors listed above, they could have a successful accident defense. Depending on the circumstances, a successful accident defense can reduce charges or a complete acquittal.

The main element of a crime that a mistake defense attacks is the intent element. In other words, if something happened by accident, it couldn't have happened on purpose.

Most criminal acts are perpetrated on purpose; i.e., the perpetrator had intent. An accident defense can show that the alleged criminal act was not done on purpose. In this article by our Los Angeles criminal defense attorneys, we will examine this topic in more detail below.

The Importance of Criminal Intent

Most criminal offenses have two main parts described by their legal terms, the "mens rea" and the "actus reus." The mens rea of a criminal offense is the mental state required during the commission of the crime. The actus reus is the defendant's actual conduct in committing a crime.

Criminal Intent
Most crimes require showing that a defendant had criminal intent when they committed it.

For an individual to be convicted of most crimes, there must be a criminal mens rea and actus reus. Without an intent element in a criminal charge, the accident defense is less effective and might not be available.

“Intent” means that someone acts in a criminal case with a particular purpose or determination. The intent is often the most contested issue in a criminal case, and there are various ways that an individual's intent can be proven. Intent can be verified by the defendant's actions, what they said, or what others saw or experienced.

If someone is putting a jacket on and while swinging their arm through the sleeve hits someone else, then it is a defense to assault that the individual was not trying to hit the other person; they were simply trying to put a jacket on. The facts and circumstances in this scenario can help prove this accident.

To use accident as a legal defense, the defendant has the burden of everything discussed above beyond a reasonable doubt. There are some common crimes where the accident defense could apply, such as:

Accident can work as a legal defense with intent crimes because it shows the defendant did not act intentionally; instead, they violated the law due to some misfortune. Likewise, with intent, accident could serve as a defense to show a defendant didn't act negligently.

In certain crimes, showing a defendant acted intentionally is not required. Instead, the prosecutor has to prove they acted with criminal negligence. Somebody acts with criminal negligence if they commit an act with a wanton or reckless disregard for human life. Accident could also work as a defense here because a defendant's accidental actions show they didn't act with any recklessness.

The Requirement that the Defendant Was Acting Lawfully

For a defendant to successfully make an accident defense, they must have been acting lawfully at the time of the accident. Individuals could not make an accident defense if their underlying conduct were against the law.

For instance, if an individual is committing an armed robbery, they accidentally discharge their gun and break a window while the robbery takes place. Suppose the defendant is later charged with destroying property for breaking the window.

In that case, he cannot successfully use an accident defense by saying that he accidentally pulled the trigger that caused the broken window. The fact that he was committing a crime when the property destruction occurred prevents him from using an accident defense successfully.

What is the Accident Defense Law in California?

In California, the accident defense is available for many types of criminal charges and will be successful if the defendant demonstrates that:

  • They did not have an intent to cause harm,
  • They were not acting with criminal negligence, and
  • They were acting lawfully at the time of the offense.

If an individual is accused of criminal negligence, then the prosecutor has to prove the following two elements to secure a conviction, they are:

  • The defendant acted recklessly and created a high risk of death or great bodily injury, and
  • A reasonable person would have known that the defendant's actions would create such a risk.

An accident defense can prove that the defendant was not criminally negligent. Criminal negligence requires that the defendant knew of the danger and that their actions were more than a simple mistake or accident.

Related Content

California Jury Instructions Regarding Accident as a Defense Explained

When a jury tries a case, the jury is given instructions about the law and how they must carry out their duties. The California jury instruction for an accident defense can be found in CALCRIM 3404, which states, “The defendant is not guilty of the alleged crime if they acted or failed to act without the intent required for that crime, but instead acted accidentally.”

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Contact our office to review your criminal case.

If the jury feels the accident negated the defendant's intent, they can determine the defendant is not guilty. The accident defense can help a defendant get their charges reduced or dismissed. It could potentially help them avoid jail time and a criminal conviction.

Through prefiling intervention, which is negotiation with the prosecution and law enforcement, we might be able to convince the prosecutor or filing deputy from filing formal criminal charges before the first court appearance, known as a “DA reject.”

Eisner Gorin LLP is a Los Angeles-based criminal law firm serving people across Southern California. You can reach our firm for an initial case review by calling (310) 328-3776 or filling out our contact form.

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