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What is "Wanton Endangerment" in Kentucky?

June 16, 2015

Crimes have different mental states associated with them as defining elements. Murder, for example, requires intent on the part of the person committing the act of homicide, while negligent homicide involves a killing that is unintentional. There are some crimes that fall in between negligence and intent. One of these is what Kentucky law calls "wanton endangerment".

Wanton endangerment comes in two versions: first degree and second degree. Second-degree wanton endangerment means that the accused has placed another person in substantial danger of physical injury, and is a misdemeanor crime. First-degree wanton endangerment is a felony, and involves creating a situation where another person is at risk of death or serious injury in connection with behavior that manifests "extreme indifference to the value of human life."

But what exactly does "wanton" mean in this context? The definition means that the accused is:

"... aware of and consciously disregards a substantial and unjustifiable risk that the result will occur or that the circumstance exists. The risk must be of such nature and degree that disregard thereof constitutes a gross deviation from the standard of conduct that a reasonable person would observe in the situation."

If you are wondering whether that definition sounds familiar, then you are likely thinking of the term, "recklessness".

So what are examples of wanton endangerment? Any behavior that involves being aware of a substantial risk to another for which there is no justifiable reason to engage in it will qualify. A Kentucky appeals court has, for example, upheld as first-degree wanton endangerment the act of a person with HIV having unprotected sex with a partner who does not know of his condition.

For the prosecution to prove its case of wanton endangerment, it must be able to establish the defendant's state of mind. A defense attorney may be able to raise sufficient reasonable doubt in the minds of the jurors to cast that state of mind into doubt, which would be one way to counter such a charge.