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What Is Reckless Disregard?

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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 14 March 2014
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Reckless disregard is a somewhat redundant legal term that is used in many courts to discuss the intent of a person who is charged with a crime. Intent or mens rea generally has to be established in order for a criminal case to be successfully prosecuted, and one of the ways to establish this is to propose that a person was reckless. They can also have done something purposefully, negligently or knowingly. Each description means slightly different things — when someone acts with reckless disregard, they commit an act they know is probably illegal and that could harm people, but they don’t have an actual intent to harm a person or people.

The idea of reckless disregard can be a bit confusing. If a person behaves recklessly, disregarding the law, there’s a clear inference that he might harm others. The drunk driver who climbs into a car could be accused of behaving recklessly, for example.

The driver doesn’t want to hurt anyone, but the very fact that he is drunk makes that scenario much more likely. It’s sometimes argued that the drunk person is acting in a knowing or purposeful way because most reasonable people are aware that the incidence of car accidents increases when people are driving in an intoxicated state. Still, the basic intent is to drive the car, though this breaks many laws, and not to kill someone with the car. Therefore it may pass the test of being considered reckless disregard.

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Yet this does not mean that the drunk driver is any less culpable. That someone is behaving recklessly can’t be used as a defense against a crime. A small reckless act might have some weight when a person receives a sentence, but most reckless acts, especially reckless disregard for human life, are treated abhorrently by the court. No court wants to hear the tragic case that involves death or suffering of others when such acts could have been prevented.

Reckless disregard may establish that a person did not have specific intent to harm, and this might suggest different charges. Murdering several people on purpose and murdering them recklessly could look very different. Homicide charges might become manslaughter charges, instead, for instance. This depends much on jurisdiction and regional law, and is based on the severity of crimes.

Usually, the person acting with reckless disregard knows that he or she is breaking the law and may possibly be endangering others. This test of “knowing” is usually based on what the courts think a reasonable person could have concluded in the situation about their actions. Being reckless is the opposite of being reasonable and the tendency toward reckless behavior that is criminal is ultimately an affront to society and worthy of prosecution.

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