Manslaughter Resulting from Death During Commission of Misdemeanor Per Misdemeanor – Manslaughter Rule

A person who violates a law can be convicted of manslaughter if, in the course of that violation, another person dies. This is called the misdemeanor-manslaughter rule. It is codified in many states. For example, California Penal Code section 192 states:

192.  Manslaughter is the unlawful killing of a human being without malice.  It is of three kinds:    …   

(b) Involuntary–in the commission of an unlawful act, not amounting to felony….

A dog bite might result in a misdemeanor conviction in cities that have adopted laws like section 9.04.060 of the South San Francisco Municipal Code, which requires that dog owners and keepers prevent their dogs from biting or harassing people, or keeping people from lawfully using public or private property:

9.04.060. Public protection from dogs.

(a) Every owner or possessor of a dog shall at all times prevent such dog from biting or physically harassing any person engaged in a lawful act or interfering with the lawful use of public or private property.

A violation of section 9.04.060 occurs whenever a dog owner or keeper in South San Francisco somehow fails to prevent a bite from happening. In other cities, such as the City of San Francisco itself, it is only an infraction (a public offense less than a misdemeanor) for a dog to bite a person or animal, and in still others, there is no criminal law against it at all.

Section 53.34 of the Los Angeles Municipal Code is similar but the violation covers both animals and people, and is based not only on the fact of a bite but also the act of allowing or causing the attacking dog to be at large or trespassing:

A person who owns or is in charge of or controls or who possesses a dog or other animal who permits, allows or causes the dog or other animal to run, stray, be uncontrolled or in any manner be in, upon, or at large upon a public street, sidewalk, park or other public property or in or upon the premises or private property of another person is guilty of a misdemeanor if said dog or other animal bites, attacks or causes injury to any human being or other animal.

The municipal code where the dog lives may make it a crime to allow the dog to endanger a person coming onto private property, if the owner or keeper knows that the dog is dangerous or vicious. For example, Section 53.33(a) of the Los Angeles Municipal Code states: 

No person, owning or having custody or control of any dog, other than a sentry dog, or any other animal known by such person to be vicious or dangerous, shall permit it to run at large, or permit it to run loose on or within the premises of such person in such a manner as to endanger the life or limb of any person lawfully entering such premises. For the purposes of this section “sentry dog” shall mean a dog trained to work without supervision in a fenced facility to deter or to detain persons found within the facility.

Similarly, it is a violation of the Los Angeles Municipal Code for a person to “permit” a leashed or unleashed dog to not only assault, but also to threaten or menace any person or animal anywhere except the owner’s property. Section 53.34.1 provides:

No person, owning or having custody or control of any dog, whether or not restrained by a substantial chain or leash, shall permit the dog to unlawfully assault, threaten or menace any human being or other animal upon any public street, sidewalk, park or other public property, or in or upon the premises or private property of another. 

The Beverly Hills Municipal Code has the effect of forcing the exile from the city of any dog that has bitten a person or otherwise has demonstrated viciousness:

Sec. 5-2.201. Vicious dogs.

It shall be unlawful for any person to keep within the City a vicious dog. Proof that a dog has bitten a person shall be deemed to be prima facie evidence that the dog is vicious; provided further, a dog may be shown to be vicious even though it is not proven to have bitten any person.

Mere ownership of a dangerous dog can be a crime in itself. The Beverly Hills Municipal Code makes it a crime to keep within the city any dog that has bitten someone or otherwise has demonstrated viciousness. See also Dangerous Dogs for the similar state law. 

However, not every misdemeanor or infraction requiring general criminal intent can serve as a basis for involuntary manslaughter. “{W]here involuntary manslaughter is predicated on an unlawful act constituting a misdemeanor, it must still be shown that such misdemeanor was dangerous to human life or safety under the circumstances of its commission.”  (People v. Cox (2000) 23 Cal.4th 665, 675) The Court stated that in California there is no “misdemeanor-manslaughter rule that automatically establishes the offense of involuntary manslaughter whenever a killing results from the commission of any misdemeanor.” (Ibid.) It was held that the underlying unlawful act must be dangerous to human life or safety under the circumstances of its commission. (Cox, 23 Cal.4th at p. 676.)

In order for a municipal code section requiring that a dog be kept on a leash, therefore, or that the owner or keeper prevent bites from occurring, be the basis for involuntary manslaughter, the circumstances must have created a danger to human life or safety. Although no cases have specifically addressed dog bites and municipal code sections making them illegal, it appears clear that the prosecution would need to prove that defendant had knowledge of some dangerous propensity of the dog. (See the discussion of People v. Berry, in Death caused by mischievous animal, above.)