Vehicular Homicide: A Question of Criminal Intent

In this blog post, I want to discuss the question of whether or not criminal intent is necessary to establish legal or moral responsibility. However, I intend to do so by first assessing the importance of responsibility itself in our society. Despite the boldness of the statement, I would venture to say that the very fabric of our society is based on assignment of responsibility. Although Strawson offers a compelling argument against the use of responsibility, I do not think it unreasonable to assert that even if the concept of responsibility should be done away with altogether because of its lack of effectiveness or usefulness, people would never do so because it is simply ingrained into our world-vision. When a praiseworthy or blameworthy event occurs, society desires to assign either praise or blame. If a person walks away, leaving his phone on a table where he was sitting, and comes back to find his phone face-down on the floor with the screen cracked, the natural or at least most common reaction is for the person to wonder who or what caused the event. In fact, when questioning others, he might very well cite the very probable idea that a phone would not simply leap from the table to its demise of its own volition. Similarly, if a masked man saves three people from a burning building, the victims themselves as well as other people would definitely desire to thank and commend him. The concept of responsibility, then, seems to be one that is simply taught by one’s surroundings, if not innate in human nature.

            In light of the pragmatic position responsibility holds in our society, I definitely do not think that criminal intent is a necessary condition for establishing legal or moral responsibility. Responsibility can most definitely be assigned to someone even if they earnestly do not seek to cause any harm. In fact, I would argue that the law operates on the same principle. For instance, cases of vehicular homicide combined with a DUI charge often have very serious sentences. In fact, according to Mothers Against Drunk Driving, in Tennessee, the maximum sentence is 60 years while the maximum in Alaska is 99 years. The severity of these punishments hinges upon the idea that a life was taken and another person was the cause. I daresay that in the vast majority of vehicular homicide cases caused by the consumption of alcohol or other substances, none of the perpetrators would have hit someone were they in their right mind. It is doubtful that, even while under the influence, a driver would intentionally attempt to hit someone while behind the wheel. Therefore, I would argue that the criminal intent element of the case does not hold under those circumstances. However, the fact remains that a person has just been killed, and someone must be held responsible whether they intended to cause harm or not. What kind of society would we be if we simply contented ourselves with the fact that the drunk driver did not intend to harm anyone and let him go free? Would not that person still be morally responsible for taking another person’s life even if he is only legally responsible of driving under the influence? Surely there would be an outcry from the victim’s family and friends, because they have had someone taken from them. For this reason, I do not believe that criminal intent, though it is useful in determining the outcome of many cases, is necessary to assign legal or moral responsibility.

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2 thoughts on “Vehicular Homicide: A Question of Criminal Intent

  1. From a purely legal perspective, I do agree with your assessment that criminal intent is not a necessary condition for legal responsibility. If we eliminate intent all together, it is rather clear that the person who caused the action is in fact “responsible” for the outcome. With that said, I believe it is important for our legal system to remain loyal not only to law, but also to humanity. Society would probably declare it unjust for law to treat a person who intentionally inflicts harm on another in the same way as someone who has benevolent aims. So while intentionality does not change the end result, it is something that needs to be heavily considered by the court when making a legal decision about how to address, determine, and handle “responsibility.”

    • I agree that Strawson’s account of responsibility would not work within a society. It is so easy to look at something and want to know the cause. Even in good things, we care about who accomplished them and how they did it. I also think that vehicular homicide where drinking is involved is a pertinent example for your argument. Recently in Memphis, a twenty year old man was driving down the wrong side of the road because he had been drinking a lot. Unfortunately he drove head on into another car and killed the other driver. He is now facing up to forty years in prison. When reading about this case I wondered how this man should be treated in the face of what happened. I wanted to say that he didn’t mean to, he didn’t know what he was doing. But at the same time he made the choice to drive drunk and in the end it cost a life. His carelessness will change his life and the lives of countless others for years to come.

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