What happens when a hunter accidentally shoots another in Wisconsin?

What happens when a Wisconsin hunter accidentally shoots someone else?

Unfortunately, accidents during hunting season happen every year.  Sometimes those accidents are minor.  Other times, those accidents result in fatalities and are the result of accidental shootings.  What happens when a hunter accidentally shoots another?  And importantly, what happens when the victim dies?

In this blog post, criminal defense attorney Benjamin T. Van Severen discusses the criminal charges an individual in this position faces, along with what the government needs to prove in order to sustain a conviction against the defendant.  We’ve also provided a few tips for avoiding accidents while hunting throughout Wisconsin.  Following basic safety principles could mean the difference between being accidentally shot and having a successful hunt.

If you’re charged with any sort of crime in Wisconsin, contact Van Severen Law Office, S.C. immediately for help.  We’ve successfully represented thousands of individuals throughout the state facing serious criminal charges.  Frequently, those charges are serious, felony-level offenses involving violence.  Contact us at (414) 270-0202 to schedule a free initial consultation.

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First degree reckless homicide

Although this blog post focuses on when one hunter accidentally shoots another, first degree reckless homicide applies to situations where the shooter acts in a way that was much more reckless than a simple accident.  This crime requires that the shooter engage in “criminally reckless conduct” and act with “utter disregard for human life.”  These two definitions can be difficult for a prosecutor to prove, and due to that, this charge is reserved for the most serious, dangerous situations.

First degree reckless homicide requires that the government prove:

    • Firstly, the defendant caused the death of the victim; and
    • Secondly, the defendant caused the death by criminally reckless conduct; and
    • Thirdly, the circumstances of the defendant’s conduct showed utter disregard for human life.

The term criminally reckless conduct requires that the government prove three additional elements:

  • The conduct of the defendant created a risk of death or great bodily harm to the victim;
  • The risk of death or great bodily harm was unreasonable and substantial; and finally
  • The defendant was aware that his conduct created the unreasonable and substantial risk of death or great bodily harm.

Utter disregard for human life requires the jury to consider various factors, including what the defendant was doing, why the defendant was engaged in that conduct, how dangerous it was, how obvious the danger was, and whether the conduct showed any regard for life.

Proving this charge requires more than a simple accident.  The government must prove that the defendant’s conduct created a risk of death or great bodily harm that was unreasonable and substantial.  This requires more than a weapon misfiring, or shooting another hunter on accident while firing at a deer.

What if the government can’t quite prove first degree?

Second degree reckless homicide requires everything first degree does except for the “utter disregard for human life” requirement.  This lowers the bar quite a bit for the government, as it no longer needs to prove this difficult element.  That being said, prosecutors must still prove that the defendant created a risk of death or great bodily harm that was unreasonable and substantial.  This is closer to an “accident,” as we traditionally understand the term, and further away from knowingly reckless conduct.

Importantly, this also reduces the penalties significantly.  First degree reckless homicide is a Class B felony, making it the second-most serious criminal offense in Wisconsin.  A Class B felony carries a maximum penalty of 60 years in prison.  That 60 year prison penalty breaks down into 40 years initial confinement, followed by 20 years extended supervision.

Second degree reckless homicide is a Class D felony, which has a maximum penalty of 25 years in prison, $100,000.00 in fines, or both.  A Class D felony includes 15 years initial confinement followed by 10 years extended supervision.  Obviously this is still a significant penalty, but the difference between 40 years in and 15 years in is substantial.

Reckless injury: hunter accidentally shoots another, no death occurs

First and second degree reckless injury break down the same way that reckless homicide does: first degree requires utter disregard for human life.  Second degree does not.  Reckless injury requires that the defendant cause great bodily harm.  Great bodily harm means an injury that creates a substantial risk of death, or causes permanent disfigurement or permanent/protracted impairment of the functions of any body part.  While it’s safe to say that the huge majority of shootings result in great bodily harm, that’s not automatically the case.  A graze wound, as an example, while scary, does not qualify as great bodily harm, and could not result in charges for this crime.

Reckless injury requires:

  • Firstly, the defendant caused great bodily harm to the victim; and
  • Secondly, the defendant caused great bodily harm by criminally reckless conduct; and
  • Thirdly, the circumstances of the defendant’s conduct showed utter disregard for human life.

You’ll quickly notice that we’re again talking about criminally reckless conduct.  Whether a hunting accident that occurs after one hunter accidentally shoots another qualifies as criminally reckless conduct must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, using all the facts and circumstances of the scenario.

A rifle used for deer hunting appears in an unzipped gun bag
What happens when a hunter accidentally shoots another? Unfortunately, criminal charges sometimes accompany these situations.  Contact Van Severen Law Office, S.C. at (414) 270-0202 to speak with our firearms crime defense lawyers.

What happens when nobody gets shot, but there’s still an accident?

Section 941.20 of the Wisconsin Statutes describes a crime called endangering safety by use of a dangerous weapon.  Dangerous weapons include firearms.  The statute indicates:

941.20 Endangering safety by use of dangerous weapon.

(1)  Whoever does any of the following is guilty of a Class A misdemeanor:
(a) Endangers another’s safety by the negligent operation or handling of a dangerous weapon.
(b) Operates or goes armed with a firearm while he or she is under the influence of an intoxicant.
Importantly, a hunter who “endangers another’s safety” doesn’t necessarily shoot the other person.  But this charge can include things like pointing the firearm at someone else or an accidental discharge.  As you’ll also notice, subsection (b) covers individuals who go armed with firearms while under the influence of an intoxicant.  Many hunters drink the night before hunting, the night after hunting, and sometimes in between hunts.  It’s important to recognize that going hunting while intoxicated is a crime.  We’ve included it here not because it’s a Class A misdemeanor, but because intoxicants can lead to making poor decisions, and lead to more serious charges.  Could a prosecutor argue that your intoxication showed “utter disregard for human life” and contributed to your “criminally reckless conduct”?  A creative, smart one could certainly use it as one factor in proving either definition.

What can I do to avoid a hunting accident?

Following four basic rules of firearm safety are incredibly important whenever using a firearm.  And following them will ensure that you don’t expose yourself to criminal liability:

  1. Treat every firearm as if it is loaded.  Do not assume a firearm is unloaded and never treat it like it is.  This applies even if you watch as the weapon is unloaded.  Making this a habit ensures that even if an accidental discharge occurs, you, and no one else, is harmed.
  2. Always point the muzzle in a safe direction.  Approximately 33% of all hunting accidents are self-inflicted injuries.  Self-inflicted injuries only occur if the muzzle of the firearm was pointed at the hunter prior to it discharging.  A safe direction is one in which the bullet will travel and harm no one in the even of a discharge.
  3. Be certain of your target and what’s beyond it.  Positively identifying your targets is a must.  Shooting at something you are not certain is your intended target is gambling.  Simply shooting at movement could result in you taking the life of another human, and the criminal charges that will accompany that decision.  Not recognizing your target is reckless behavior and will factor into whether the government believes your act constituted “criminally reckless conduct.”
  4. Keep your finger outside the trigger guard until ready to shoot.  This ensures that if you stumble with the firearm, you do not accidentally pull the trigger.  Stumbling with your finger on the trigger, and then reaching to brace yourself from a fall, easily results in an accidental discharge.

Finally, wear proper attire.  We’ve all observed hunters in blaze orange during the firearm season.  Other hunters will also see you, decreasing the risk of you becoming the victim of an accident

Contact Van Severen Law Office, S.C. if you’re charged for shooting someone else while hunting.

Crimes involving firearms frequently make the news.  When paired with hunting season, these situations quickly go viral and attract a lot of attention.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but when handled the wrong way it can quickly lead to a more difficult criminal case to defend.  It’s important to maintain your silence – to the cops, to the media, and any individual other than your criminal defense lawyer.

At Van Severen Law Office, we’ve defended high-profile cases involving firearms and shootings.  We’ve seen how serious these situations are, and we believe that they’re best handled by top Wisconsin criminal defense lawyers.  You’ll meet a few of Wisconsin’s best at our law firm.  We’re constantly accepting new clients and look forward to hearing your story.

Contact us to start discussing your case.  We offer free consultations to potential clients and are available 24/7 at (414) 270-0202.

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