Intervening Causes in Criminal Law

An intervening cause occurs when there is some interruption between the defendant’s conduct and the ultimate harm or result. See People v. Acosta for a great example.

Here is how to conduct an analysis to determine if a defendant is still liable in the presence of one or more intervening causes:

First, is the intervening cause dependent or independent on the defendant’s conduct? For example, the intervening cause is dependent if it would not have occurred without the defendant’s conduct (e.g. a security guard firing a pistol because the defendant is robbing a bank).

  • If the intervening cause is dependent on the defendant’s conduct, was it foreseeable or unforeseeable?
    • If the intervening cause was foreseeable and dependent then a court can hold the defendant liable if the result was intended or reasonably foreseeable
    • If the intervening cause was unforeseeable (or not a strong foreseeable link) but dependent then a court can hold the defendant liable if the result was sufficiently related to the actor’s conduct to impose liability (or, in the converse, it would not be fair to hold the defendant liable)
  • If the intervening cause is independent of the defendant’s conduct, then the intervening cause was not reasonably foreseeable and there is no sufficient relationship to the defendant’s conduct. Therefore, it is unfair to hold the defendant liable for the result of the intervening cause.
    • This is known as an independent superceding cause


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  1. People v. Acosta, 284 Cal. Rptr. 117 (1991) | Case Briefs | Criminal Law | MiB Law - [...] argument: The helicopter pilot’s FAA violations were a superseding cause of the accident.  Also, it was unforeseeable (highly extraordinary) …

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