New York’s Manslaughter Statute: Determining Legislative Intent
People v. Jorgensen
New York Court of Appeals
Decided October 22, 2015
2015 NY Slip Op 07699
Pregnant Woman is not criminally responsible for engaging in reckless conduct against an unborn fetus
Issue:?whether a woman can be convicted of manslaughter for reckless conduct that she engaged in while pregnant that caused injury to the fetus in utero where the child was born alive but died as a result of that injury days later
Holding: The Court of Appeals found that the the defendant was not guilty of manslaughter. ?Penal Law 125.05 (1) provides that, when referring to the victim of a homicide, a person is “a human being who has been born and is alive.” The question is, did the legislature, through its enactment of the two statutory provisions, intend to hold pregnant women criminally responsible for engaging in reckless conduct against themselves and their unborn fetuses, such that they should be subject to criminal liability for prenatal conduct that results in postnatal death? Under the current statutory scheme, the answer to this question is no.
Facts: On May 30, 2008, defendant, driving eastbound on Whiskey Road in Suffolk County, entered the westbound lane and struck the vehicle of Robert and Mary Kelly head on, killing them both. At the time of the collision, defendant was 34 weeks pregnant. She was taken to a local hospital where, due to signs of fetal distress, she consented to an emergency cesarean section. Despite the best efforts of hospital personnel, the baby died six days later. An autopsy confirmed that the cause of death was due to injuries sustained in the accident.
Legislative Intent:Consideration of the entire statutory scheme is necessary in order to divine whether the legislature intended to criminalize conduct.
Legal Analysis: This is a case of first impression. The legislature’s definition of the word “person,” when referring to a homicide victim, as “a human being who has been born and is alive,” is relatively broad. When it is read in conjunction with the manslaughter in the second degree provision at issue here, however, it is also ambiguous as to whether the legislature intended to criminalize a mother’s own reckless conduct directed at herself and, consequently, the fetus. Consideration of the entire statutory scheme is necessary in order to divine whether the legislature intended to criminalize such conduct.
The “self-abortion” statutes in New York require the mens rea of intent, and, yet, the legislature has determined that the punishment for such intentional conduct is no greater than a misdemeanor. In contrast, the manslaughter in the second degree statute under which defendant was charged and convicted is a class C felony, and requires that the People prove that defendant acted with the mental state of “recklessness,” i.e., that she was “aware of and consciously disregard[ed] a substantial and unjustifiable risk” that a particular result would occur or circumstance existed (Penal Law 15.05 ). We conclude that the legislature did not intend to impose greater punishment on pregnant women for their alleged reckless conduct toward a fetus than for their intentional conduct.
The People concede that, had defendant not consented to the cesarean section with the result that the child be born alive, she would not have been prosecuted for manslaughter in the second degree. Thus, if we accorded the word “person” the interpretation advocated by the People, it would create a perverse incentive for a pregnant woman to refuse a cesarean section out of fear that if her baby is born alive she would face criminal charges for her alleged reckless conduct, jeopardizing the health of the woman and the unborn fetus. This is plainly not what the legislature intended when it enacted the definition of “person” under section 125.05 (1) or the manslaughter in the second degree offense as delineated in Penal Law 125.15 (1). To interpret the statutory provisions otherwise would enlarge their criminal reach beyond what the legislature intended.