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  • Writer's pictureTommy Sangchompuphen

Feeling the Heat: Reviewing Criminal Law Concepts During a Heatwave

A dangerous heat wave is bringing higher-than-usual temperatures to much of the U.S. this weekend, including over parts of the Ohio Valley where I live.

As temperatures soar, it’s not just the mercury that’s heating up—some key legal concepts in Criminal Law are also centered around heat! Today, let’s explore how the heat of passion in voluntary manslaughter and the literal heating involved in arson can help you understand these concepts.

Voluntary Manslaughter and the Heat of Passion

In the sweltering summer, tempers can flare just as easily as the thermometer rises. This ties in closely with the concept of voluntary manslaughter, particularly the “heat of passion” mitigating factor. Under common law, voluntary manslaughter occurs when a person kills another in the heat of passion after being provoked in a manner that could cause an ordinary person to lose self-control. (As a side note, voluntary manslaughter also occurs when the defendant can assert an imperfect self-defense. But let’s just focus on adequate provocation and “heat of passion” today.)

Here are the four requirements for adequate provocation:

1️⃣ Sudden and Intense Passion: The provocation must be enough to make a reasonable person lose their composure, not unlike how an unexpected heatwave can push us past our comfort zone.

2️⃣ Actual Provocation: The defendant must have been genuinely provoked, just as we react to the stifling heat.

3️⃣ Insufficient Cooling Time: There must not have been enough time for the defendant's temper to cool—similar to how a brief respite from the heat doesn’t quite relieve the day’s oppressive temperatures.

4️⃣ No Cooling Off: The defendant did not cool off before committing the act, akin to how relentless heat persists throughout a heatwave day.

Remember: Voluntary manslaughter is not a defense to common law murder. Rather, it simply mitigates—or reduces—common law murder to voluntary manslaughter.

Arson: The Role of Heat in Setting Fires

Common law arson, which is the malicious burning of another's dwelling, also hinges on the concept of heat, although in a more literal sense. The legal definition requires that the fire must cause actual damage to the structure, though mere scorching from heat is insufficient—similar to how a brief hot spell may not necessarily lead to long-term effects unless it is intense and sustained.

Here are some important requirements for arson:

🔥 Malicious Intent: Unlike the indiscriminate heat of the sun, arson requires a more nuanced form of malice. The perpetrator doesn’t need to act with ill will or a specific motive, but the act cannot be merely accidental. It involves either an intention to cause the fire, knowledge that the fire would likely result, or reckless disregard of the obvious risk that the structure would burn. This is like knowing you’re throwing a lit match into a pile of dry leaves—it’s not just careless, it’s playing with fire.

🔥 Burning Requirement: There must be actual burning; mere smoke damage or discoloration from heat does not qualify. This is analogous to how a hot day must cross a threshold to impact our environment significantly.

🔥 Damage to Structure: The damage must affect the structure’s material, much like how a prolonged heatwave can leave a lasting impact on the land.

As the heatwave presses on, make sure you stay cool. And as you prepare for the bar exam, consider how everyday events and conditions can serve as practical examples to help you review important legal concepts.


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