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Causation in Criminal Law

November 3, 2011

2. Law, 6. Trial

Causation in Criminal Law

You can read here for perspective.  I’ll wait.  Go ahead.

Back?  Cool.

Causation is really funky.  It’s a deep topic that is driven by previous cases offering up very specific fact patterns.  They’ve been distilled into rules, but every criminal case is going to rest on the finest details of that case.  Think of Causation as an incredibly windy road that goes on for miles and you can never crank over 15 MPH unless you want to miss a turn and become one with a tree.  Trust me – having your remains peeled off a tree ain’t pretty.

Without any background in the topic, you might think it applies to being charged with Murder only to find out the guy was dead before you cut his head off with a butter knife.  While that certainly explains why he didn’t flinch and arterial spray wasn’t present, I’d rather argue those facts under actus reus – defeat the alleged crime in the starting gate.  And once the science came in, the DA would just amend the charges to Abuse of Corpse graded as an M2.  But hey, an M2 is better than a Murder charge any day.

Let’s take Causation into its better form.  Assume you shot a guy a few times with a .22.  Chances are those smaller bullets bounced around his body eating everything in their paths like little Pac Men.  You leave him for dead and take off.  An ambulance crew somehow shows up within a minute and the guy is still sucking air.  Your attorney gets an audio cut of an EMT radioing in that the guy’s messed up but stable.  It’s in the wee hours of the morning.  They wake up the ER doc.  He negligently (this is key) performs his job – and as a direct result of that negligence the dude dies.  Your attorney talks to another doc and is told that but for that negligence in the ER the dude would’ve lived.  You’re charged with Murder.

“I didn’t cause that death,” you’re saying.

The doc’s mess up is called a “responsive intervening cause.”  It responded to the situation you created – you shot the guy.  It’s “intervening” because it was between your action and the death.  You’re not, however, going to be relieved of criminal responsibility due to a responsive intervening cause.  That’s pretty much a rule.  Even if the doc wasn’t just negligent but was truly bizarre in his conduct – way beyond grossly negligent – you’re still going to have a tough time.

The court is going to return to the initial event:  You shot him.  Then the end result:  He died.  The stuff in between is important, but usually won’t wash away your responsibility.

The companion to a “responsive intervening cause” is a “coincidental intervening cause.”  Coincidentals might get you off.

Assume you drove someone ten miles outside of town.  In walking back, the goofball saunters down the middle of the road.  He gets picked off.  Body’s all mangled and bent.  Dead.  Did you cause that death?  Well, you did drive him out there.  He had to walk back – you knew that.  But for you being a goof, the guy wouldn’t have been in the middle of a road ten miles out of town.  But we’re starting to get further away from you putting a person into a death situation – like shooting him.  I wouldn’t let you off completely … was he wearing dark clothes?  Did you give him a dark jacket on a brisk night?  Was he drunk or high and you knew it?  There’s still some pieces to address, but you’re getting closer to shrugging your shoulders and walking away from the situation.

The resolution is going to be resolved, in part, by “foreseeability.”  Acts are more foreseeable in responsive matters than in intervening ones.  It’s foreseeable, for example, that the guy you shot was going to need medical care.  Some docs mess up.  We know that.  But it’s not readily foreseeable that a car is going to pick off your guy as he lumbers back into town – let alone that the moron would walk the double-yellow dressed like Johnny Cash.

Once your attorney successfully argues that the additional event stands between you and the end result, we label it a “supervening event.”

“Apparent safety” is another issue that comes up.  Assume that you devolve into spousal abuse.  The wife runs out of the doublewide, and you slouch down the hallway with your protruding forehead and knuckles dragging on the ground behind you.  Her mother lives three trailers down.  She could have just gone there.  Instead she bolts into the cornfield that Billy Bob never harvested even though it’s January.  She wanders in circles until finally curling into a fetal position.  By morning, she’s solid ice.  You started that chain of events, right?  You should get nailed.  Ah, but she had the opportunity to go to a place of apparent safety and chose not to.  In this situation, it’s not an easy out, but it may be an out.  It’s not clean.  We want her decision to be a free, deliberate, and informed one.  We don’t want her acting under duress.  She may have avoided her mom because she knew you would go there and continue your Neanderthal routine – except now with two women.  But it may be an out.

There’s a few more issues we could discuss in Causation, but I think this gives you a feel for the topic.

See why you need an attorney?

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About Clyde

Clyde is the lead attorney in the firm. Licensed to practice in 1993, he's also taught Constitutional and Criminal Law for several years at a private university, primarily at the Master's level.

View all posts by Clyde

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