Criminal negligence is a legal term used to describe actions that are so egregiously negligent as to be considered criminal. Generally, intent is an element of most crimes, which means that a person cannot be found guilty of a criminal act unless he performed an intentional action that violated common law or criminal codes; this is referred to as the actus reus or mens rea. Criminal negligence is an alternative way to satisfy the mens rea requirement and find someone guilty of a crime.
Negligence is a concept found in both criminal and tort, or civil, law. The concept of negligence relates to the common law belief, developed in judicial cases over hundreds of years, that every individual owes a duty to other individuals. Breach of that duty is a legal lapse that is punishable either by a lawsuit, by criminal sanctions or both.
The standard for negligence in the United States is a reasonable person standard. This means that, when the court determines whether an individual behaved negligently and breached his duty of care, the court will determine how a reasonable person would have behaved in that situation and will then compare that to how the defendant in the particular case behaved. If the defendant's behavior falls short of what the reasonable person would have done, the defendant can be considered legally negligent.
The reasonable person standard generally does not vary. This means that all people are held to the same general standard, regardless of their education level or specific circumstances. The only exceptions exist in cases of children, who are held to a reasonable child standard based on the mental capacity of a child their age; the mentally ill; and doctors or lawyers who are held to a reasonable doctor/lawyer standard in cases of malpractice.
In order for negligence to be punished as a crime, the action must extend beyond ordinary negligence. Failure to behave in a reasonable matter alone cannot stand in for the required intent element of a crime. Only behavior that is so negligent it is almost guaranteed to cause injury constitutes criminal negligence.
Common examples of criminal negligence include driving while intoxicated or reckless driving. A person who commits these actions and kills someone may be subject to criminal penalties even if he did not intend to kill someone, because the criminal negligence he exhibited satisfies the mens rea requirement. Driving drunk and killing a victim is an example of criminally negligent homicide, which may be charged as vehicular manslaughter or a related crime.