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Can I Accidentally Commit a Crime?

Posted on May 2, 2022 in

Accidents happen, but what comes next if you accidentally commit a crime? For example, if you didn’t realize that you were trespassing on private property when you cut across an empty lot on the way to the bus stop, or that you forgot to pay for an item at the self-checkout until you got home? Criminal charges are possible in Massachusetts even if you unknowingly or unintentionally broke a law. However, lighter criminal charges are often dropped if the defendant can prove that it was an accident.

Accident – Or Lack of Intent – As a Legal Defense

It is possible to face charges for a crime that you accidentally commit in Massachusetts. If a surveillance camera caught you unintentionally leaving the store with an item that you did not pay for, for example, the business owner could decide to press charges. However, the fact that you did not mean to commit the crime can be used as a defense. An accident shows a lack of intent, which is one of the elements that a prosecutor must prove to achieve a guilty verdict.

In general, to prove that a defendant committed a crime beyond a reasonable doubt, there must be evidence that the defendant knowingly broke the law; that the defendant had the intent to commit a crime or cause harm. If you or your criminal defense lawyer can prove that the crime was committed accidentally and that you had no intention of breaking the law, this lack of criminal intent to do harm could dismiss the charges against you.

Negligence Can Still Place Responsibility on You

In general, Massachusetts law excuses criminal conduct that arises out of a legitimate accident or misfortune. However, you will need to prove that you were not acting negligently at the time that the crime was committed. If you were negligent, careless, reckless or wanton, you could still be convicted of a crime that you did not mean to commit.

Take the example of the couple in Southern California that accidentally started a forest fire while using fireworks during their gender reveal party – a fire that ended up taking the life of a firefighter. While the couple did not intend to start the fire or harm anyone, they were charged with a total of 30 counts, including involuntary manslaughter, for their part in recklessly causing the disaster.

Unlawful Conduct of Any Kind Can Validate the Charges

Finally, you will need to prove that you weren’t engaged in any other unlawful conduct at the time of the accidental crime. If there is proof that you were attempting to break a different law at the time that you committed the crime for which you were arrested, you can be charged with the accidental crime, as well. If you accidentally injured someone while attempting to steal from them, for example, you could be charged with both theft and aggravated assault.

What if the Crime Is a Felony?

As a general rule, using “accident” as a legal defense is only effective for minor crimes. If you are being charged with a felony, it will be more difficult to prove that the crime was an accident. This is especially true since negligence can also lead to a criminal conviction in Massachusetts.

What to Do if You Accidentally Commit a Crime

As soon as you realize that you have accidentally committed a crime, try to make things right with the victim. If you accidentally shoplifted or discover that your child stole something, for example, return to the store, explain that it was an accident, and offer to pay for the item or return it.

If the accidental crime has resulted in property damage, injuries or death, contact a criminal defense lawyer immediately. In this situation, your accidental crime could be a punishable offense. You need an experienced defense lawyer to help you fight the charges and prove that it was an accident.