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Bob the Burglar specializes in fencing of stolen safety equipment (fire extinguishers, AEDs, etc.).

One night, he breaks into a factory and steals the fire extinguishers and a fire hose. The theft is not immediately discovered. The next day, during ordinary work hours, a small fire breaks out that could normally have been put out easily, but because there's nothing to do so, the factory burns to the ground and several workers die.

Could Bob get a charge (or even conviction) for manslaughter? Clearly he didn't intend to really harm anybody.

What if nothing more had happened? Could he be convicted for attempted manslaughter just because he put the workers in peril with his theft?

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  • I think your example is overly specific. People could simply be injured and the question might then be whether the thief could be guilty of reckless endangerment.
    – Spencer
    Commented Jul 12, 2023 at 22:20
  • 1
    @Spencer I wrote the question quite specific on purpose, because I think it makes discussing the case easier. Also, it's obvious even to non-experts that the penalty for homicide is far worse than that for ordinary theft.
    – PMF
    Commented Jul 13, 2023 at 6:04

2 Answers 2

18

Yes, this can be charged as a type of negligent homicide, involuntary manslaughter. The degree of culpability might be greater than negligence, since the initial act was a premeditated crime.

  • There is no intent to kill
  • The act is criminal and malicious
  • The consequences are reasonably foreseeable

The offense would be a type of constructive manslaughter, where a crime not intended to kill or cause bodily harm results in death. In the UK this is also known as an unlawful act manslaughter. The perpetrator of a premeditated crime is held responsible not only for the intended consequences, but also for foreseeable incidental ones, albeit at a reduced degree of culpability.

This doctrine is established in both civil and common law, and will apply in broadly similar ways, with different local names, usually variations on unintended homicide, in most civil law jurisdictions as well.

Medical or fire-fighting equipment being among the stolen items is, in many jurisdictions, by itself sufficient to raise the charge to grand theft, which is a felony in common law.

If Bob actually specializes in this, and a death did occur, the prosecution might charge them with second-degree felony murder, if applicable in their state. That rule is generally applied when the base offense presents danger to human life, but there have been cases that stretch it. Burglary is sufficient to apply this rule. Such a charge is less certain to stand up in court and is usually traded down in a plea bargain.

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  • Wow. 5 years in prison for stealing a fire extinguisher. That's a draconian charge.
    – PMF
    Commented Jul 11, 2023 at 14:40
  • 13
    @PMF It's exactly because it could lead to such a scenario. Although, it likely wouldn't stick if it was stolen from a fire extinguisher store.
    – Therac
    Commented Jul 11, 2023 at 15:26
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    I probably don't need to mention this, but for all the googlers out there--worth noting in all cases involving the US is that specifics of how this rule applies may vary based on jurisdiction--i. e. State (of which there are 50)--the crime occured in. So there may be some minor variations.
    – Chipster
    Commented Jul 12, 2023 at 1:47
  • @Chipster, you need to mention this. Just about any answer needs to list the jurisdiction, unless the question did.
    – o.m.
    Commented Jul 12, 2023 at 6:02
  • @PMF these deaths are a foreseeable consequence of the theft.
    – phoog
    Commented Jul 12, 2023 at 6:23
6

Yes, because it changes the charge

Bob's conduct falls under article 221-6 du Code Pénal:

Le fait de causer, dans les conditions et selon les distinctions prévues à l'article 121-3, par maladresse, imprudence, inattention, négligence ou manquement à une obligation de prudence ou de sécurité imposée par la loi ou le règlement, la mort d'autrui constitue un homicide involontaire puni de trois ans d'emprisonnement et de 45 000 euros d'amende.

Causing the death of another under the conditions of article 121-3 by carelessness, imprudence, negligence, or failing to obey a duty of prudence or safety given by the law or local regulation, is involuntary homicide punished by [a maximum of] three years in jail and €45 000 fine.

The theft charge itself and its sentence should not be affected (but that’s likely to be small change compared to the sentence for involuntary homicide anyway).

There is a reference to article 121-3. That article establishes the general principle of mens rea (no crime without the intention to commit it), but it also introduces narrow exceptions that apply here (basically, strict liability for "reckless endangerement"-type charges).

Bob is also civilly liable

He had faulty conduct (committed a crime), others suffered damage (deaths by fire, material damage to the factory), and there is a clear causal link between the two.

Bob’s lawyer might argue to reduce the fraction of damages that Bob is responsible for. After all, the damages only occurred because there was a fire, of which Bob is not responsible. Carol the worker, who started the fire, is responsible at least in part (either as a representative of the company if she acted within her work duties, or personally if she failed to comply with her employer’s safety instructions). Dave the director potentially failed to promptly call the firemen (or establish safety procedures that would have allowed to do so), or skimped on fire retardant materials. If any of those can be criminally charged, there would usually be a joint trial, and the court will decide on a split of responsibility.

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    The last part raises an interesting point. I presume even if Dave saw that the fire extinguishers where missing, I doubt he would have closed the factory until they where replaced, even if he probably should have.
    – PMF
    Commented Jul 12, 2023 at 19:15
  • If Dave saw that the fire extinguishers where missing then he's grossly negligent. GL proving that, assuming he's not an idiot and didn't say it.
    – Mazura
    Commented Jul 13, 2023 at 14:07

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