Vehicular Manslaughter

It is a fact that accidents occur all the time, and an unfortunate incident is when these accidents lead to a death of a passenger or pedestrian. In such a case, you could be charged with vehicular manslaughter. When this happens, you need representation from the best attorney to possibly avoid serving a long time in prison and hefty fines. If you are in the Los Angeles County, we invite you to contact the LA Criminal Defense Attorney whenever you are facing charges for vehicular manslaughter or related charges.

Vehicular Manslaughter as Defined Under California Law (Penal Code 192c)

California law defines vehicular manslaughter as causing another person’s death while driving with either gross or ordinary negligence. Negligent driving, in this case, includes but not limited to talking on a mobile phone or texting while driving, speeding, disobeying traffic rules or being impaired during driving. Vehicular manslaughter relates to voluntary and involuntary manslaughter offenses but unlike the later crimes, it dependably happens while one is driving. There are three types of vehicular manslaughter charges that a person can face. They include:

  1. Vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence

  2. Misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter

  3. Vehicular manslaughter for financial gain

Vehicular Manslaughter with Gross Negligence {Penal Code 192(c) (1)}

This involves acting with gross negligence while driving that you end up killing someone else in an accident. Gross negligence involves any unlawful acts you commit while driving or any legal acts carried out with gross carelessness. For instance, if Tomas was talking on a cell phone while driving then hit a pedestrian in the process, he will be charged with vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence. This is a wobbler crime. Depending on the circumstances surrounding the case and your criminal record, you can face felony or misdemeanor charges.

Elements of Vehicular Manslaughter with Gross Negligence

For you to be convicted of this crime, the prosecution must prove the following beyond any reasonable doubt;

  1. That while driving, you committed a misdemeanor or a felony, or a legal action that resulted in another person’s death. For instance, a person is waiting at a stop sign for the traffic lights to turn green so he can proceed. As soon as the lights turn green, he doesn’t look right or left to see if there is an oncoming pedestrian, he hurriedly drives into the crosswalk and in the process, he hits and kills a pedestrian. Here, proceeding with his journey was a legal act but he did it recklessly. Thus, if the prosecution has evidence for this, he is more likely to face Penal Code 192(c) (1) charges;

  2. That your actions were a threat to human life given the circumstances under which you committed them;

  3. That it is your actions that caused the victim’s death. The victim could be a pedestrian, someone in another vehicle or someone you were carrying in your vehicle. For you to be guilty of this offense, the prosecution must provide evidence that your actions directly and naturally led to the victim’s death. Note that your action need not be the only cause of death for you to be convicted. You will be convicted of this offense so long as it (the grossly negligent action) is the main factor that caused the death. Here is a case scenario. Suppose you hit someone by a car. The person does not die but is badly injured and incapable of moving. As s/he is lying on the road helpless, another car runs over him/her, killing him/her. You may face vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence charges for your action. Here, your action may not be the sole cause, but it was the main contributing factor to the victim’s death;

  4. You acted with gross recklessness. In a gross vehicular manslaughter charge, the word ‘gross negligence’ is key. Simply put, it is when you know that doing a certain act will lead to an accident or significant bodily injury but you still do it anyway. It is more than ordinary recklessness. This is what differentiates vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence and misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter. This means that if the prosecution cannot prove that you committed an act with gross carelessness, you may end up being convicted of misdemeanor (normal) vehicular manslaughter.

Note that it is gross negligence in case the defendant acted so indifferent from how a normal careful individual would have acted under the same circumstances. The defendant would then be said to have disregarded human life because of his/her actions or s/he simply did not care about the outcome of his/her actions.

Penalties for Vehicular Manslaughter with Gross Negligence

Being a wobbler offense, it is either charged as a felony or a misdemeanor. As a misdemeanor, the penalties include summary probation, a maximum of one-year jail time, and/or a fine not exceeding $1,000. As a felony, this offense is punishable by formal probation, 2, 4 or 6 years imprisonment in state prison, and/or a fine not exceeding $10,000. In case there are any surviving victims with great bodily injury, the defendant will face a sentence enhancement of an additional 3 to 6 years imprisonment which is to be served consecutively.

Misdemeanor/Ordinary Vehicular Manslaughter

You will be in violation of Penal Code 192(c) (2) if you acted with ordinary negligence while driving, leading to another person’s death. Unlike in vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence, all a prosecutor needs here is to prove that you acted with some shred of negligence. Normal negligence means that you did not use reasonable caution that could have prevented predictable harm to another person. Whether your act was gross or ordinary is determined by the specific facts of the situation.

The degree of negligence differs in regard to whether or not your actions showed disregard for human life. For instance, if you were driving at 120 miles per hour in a speed zone of 40MPH, your act will be considered as gross negligence as compared to someone who was driving 59MPH in a speed zone of 40MPH, who is more likely to be charged with a misdemeanor.

What a Prosecutor Must Prove

To be convicted of misdemeanor/ordinary vehicular manslaughter, the prosecutor must prove the following to the court;

  1. That when you were driving, you were in the commission of an unlawful act, either a felony or a misdemeanor, or you committed a legal action but in an illegal way;

  2. Your actions posed a threat to human life given the circumstances;

  3. You acted with ordinary carelessness;

  4. It is indeed your actions that led to the victim’s death.

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Insurance Fraud Vehicular Manslaughter (Penal Code 192(c) (3)

This is also referred to as vehicular manslaughter for monetary/financial gain. It happens when you cause the death of another person by deliberately causing or participating in causing an accident so that you can defraud your insurance company by filing a false insurance claim for the damages of your car.

Elements of the Crime

The jury will convict you of insurance fraud vehicular manslaughter after the prosecutor successfully proves the following elements beyond any reasonable doubt;

  1. You deliberately caused or participated in causing an accident while driving

  2. You caused the accident knowing the purpose was to make an untrue insurance claim for monetary gain

  3. You caused the accident with the purpose of defrauding another person or your insurance company

  4. The accident directly and naturally caused another person’s death

Penalties for Insurance Fraud Vehicular Manslaughter

Insurance fraud vehicular manslaughter is always an offense whose penalties include 4, 6 or 10 years’ incarceration in state prison, a fine not exceeding $10,000 or both penalties.

Suspension of a Driver’s License in Vehicular Manslaughter Cases

The defendant risks a three years’ driver’s license suspension by the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) if they are found guilty of either vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence or insurance fraud vehicular manslaughter (Vehicle Code 13351). For this period, you will not operate an automobile; if you do, you will face additional Vehicle Code 14601 charges of driving on a suspended license.

Note that in the event that the victim dies later on and not on the spot, you can still face charges of vehicular manslaughter and the suspension of your license if the victim ends up succumbing to the accident injuries.

Vehicular Manslaughter Defenses

You may be charged with vehicular manslaughter when you least expect it because to you, it was just a terrible accident; but to the prosecutor, you are at fault for causing the accident. Sometimes these charges are completely unfair but you have to fight them either way to prove your innocence. There are a number of legal defenses your attorney can argue to get your case dismissed or charges reduced. These legal defenses cut across all types of vehicular manslaughter cases.

  1. You didn’t act with gross or ordinary negligence

    Gross and ordinary negligence are what defines a vehicular manslaughter case. This means that the prosecutor has to provide evidence of either of the two for you to be guilty of gross or misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter. These are tricky aspects to prove as they center on standard behavior of a reasonable person which is hard to define. As far as driving is concerned, every driver is required to make hasty decisions. It may be difficult for the prosecutor to prove that the decision you made, even if it was a bad one, qualified to be negligent.

    Alternatively, if you are facing charges of vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence, your defense attorney can argue that your act was only ordinary. You may then end up being convicted of normal vehicular manslaughter which carries lenient penalties. Additionally, your license may not be suspended for 3 years as per Vehicle Code 13351.

  2. It is not your gross or normal negligence that led to the death of the victim

    Determining the cause of death in vehicle accidents can be tricky. It is the duty of the prosecutor to prove that it is your actions that led to someone else’s death. This means that even though you might have acted with ordinary or gross recklessness and a person died in the process, you are not guilty if the prosecution can’t prove that the death was as a result of your actions. Your attorney may argue that the negligence was on the victim’s or someone else’s side.

  3. You had an unexpected emergency and were acting as reasonable as possible given the situation

    California law provides that if you were facing an unexpected crisis you are at liberty to use similar judgment and care just like any other reasonable person would have done in similar circumstances. Therefore, if you acted so, you are not guilty of vehicular manslaughter. For example, suppose you drove into an oncoming vehicle but you did so to avoid hitting an oncoming pedestrian or plunging into a ditch that would have caused damage to your car. A qualified attorney can argue that your act does not qualify to be negligent therefore you cannot be charged.

    In vehicular manslaughter cases, intent to commit the crime does not play a big role during a conviction. This means that the prosecutor does not need to prove that the driver had the intention of causing an accident except maybe for vehicular manslaughter for financial gain. Otherwise, the prosecutor only needs to prove that the defendant was reckless while driving. Lack of intent is, therefore, not a valid defense to argue vehicular manslaughter charges.

Aggravating and Mitigating Factors to Vehicular Manslaughter Charges

These are factors relating to the commission of the offense that could make a prosecutor increase or reduce your charges. Some of the mitigating factors to this offense include age, a medical condition, lack of criminal record and the defendant’s professional standing. For instance, if it is a minor that is facing such charges, the jury might decide to give him/her lenient penalties as compared to an adult. Additionally, the defendant could have a medical condition such as a mental illness which might have contributed to the accident. On the other hand, if you have had any history of prior convictions due to criminal behavior or DUI, or if you fled the scene of the crime, the jury is more likely to increase your charges.

Related Offenses to Vehicular Manslaughter

There are multiple offenses that may be charged together with or instead of Penal Code 192(c). They include:

  1. Vehicular manslaughter while under the influence of drugs or Alcohol

    This is also known as vehicular manslaughter while under intoxication. It is a distinct offense from vehicular manslaughter and is charged under Penal Code 191.5. You will only be charged with this crime if you allegedly caused the death of a person while driving under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol. There are two types of charges that one can face under Penal Code 191.5. These are:

    1. Gross vehicular manslaughter while under the influence

    2. Misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter while under the influence

    Driving while under intoxication means you are violating either Vehicle Code 23152(a), Vehicle Code 23152(b), 23152(e), or in case you are below 21 years, you are driving with a blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.01% or more.

    Misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated can be charged either as a felony or a misdemeanor. Its penalties include a maximum of one-year imprisonment in county jail or 16 months, two or three years prison sentence if charged as an infraction. On the other hand, gross vehicular manslaughter while under influence is always a felony which is punishable by 4, 6 or 10 years state prison imprisonment.

    Vehicular manslaughter is considered a lesser offense compared to vehicular manslaughter while under the influence. Thus, if you are charged with the latter, and the prosecutor can’t provide evidence of intoxication, you could still be charged with the former. Alternatively, if you are charged with Penal Code 191.5, your attorney can argue that your charges be reduced to those of Penal Code 192(c) vehicular manslaughter.

  2. Driving Under the Influence (Vehicle Code 23152(f) and (g)

    You can face driving under the influence charges alongside vehicular manslaughter if you were driving while intoxicated and caused another person’s death. This is a misdemeanor offense whose penalties include;

    1. A DUI probation for 3 to 5 years

    2. Admission into a California DUI school

    3. A fine of $1,800 in case you are a first-time offender

    4. Your driver’s license could be suspended

    5. Serving time in jail

    DUI can also be charged as a felony in situations where the defendant was previously convicted of similar charges. In this case, it is punishable by not more 4 years imprisonment or a maximum fine $5,000.

  3. Watson Murder/DUI Murder (Penal Code 187)

    This is a form of second-degree murder. You can be guilty of Watson murder instead of vehicular manslaughter if you’re a second or subsequent DUI offender, you well know of the dangers of DUI and were given a Watson advisement during a past DUI conviction. A Watson advisement is a form that warns the defendant of the dangers and consequences of driving while intoxicated.

    Watson Murder is a serious offense. It is always a felony charged under Penal Code 187 murder. Its penalties include 15 years to life imprisonment in state prison (Penal code 190(a), a maximum fine of $10,000 (Penal Code 672) and, as per California’s Three Strikes laws, you will receive a strike on your criminal record (Penal Code 667.5). In addition, you may be required to compensate the victim’s family. Watson murder sentence increases if there are any surviving victims that suffered great bodily injury. In this case, you could face additional 3 to 6 years imprisonment for every victim with any significant bodily injury and an additional one to three years for each victim with a minor injury (Penal Code 12022.7).

  4. Hit and Run (Vehicle Code 20001 & 20002)

    California law classifies hit and run offense into two;

    1. Misdemeanor hit and run

    2. Felony hit and run

    You will be guilty of a misdemeanor hit and run if after causing an accident that leads to the damage of someone else’s property, you flee the scene without identifying yourself to the involved parties. A felony hit run on the other hand involves fleeing the scene of the accident without identifying yourself, after causing an injury or death of another party.

    Hit and run can be charged alongside vehicular manslaughter if, while recklessly driving, the defendant hit and killed someone else then fled the scene. Hit and run laws apply to every car accident irrespective of whose car it was, the degree of the inflicted damage or how bad the injury is.

    Penalties for misdemeanor hit and run include a maximum of 6 months imprisonment in county jail, a maximum of 3 years of summary probation, compensating the victim for any property you damaged, a maximum fine of $1,000 and two points on your driving history as per California DMV. If you are a first-time offender and there are no aggravating factors to this offense, chances are you won’t serve significant time in jail.

    A felony hit and run is a wobbler offense. If charged as a misdemeanor, it is punishable by a maximum of one-year county jail time. If charged as a felony, it is punishable by a $1,000 to $10,000 fine and a maximum of 3 years state prison sentence. If the accident caused death or significant physical injury, you could face up to 4 years imprisonment in a California state prison.

If you are being charged with a crime feel free to contact our Los Angeles Criminal Defense Lawyer for a free consultation.