Charges of vehicular manslaughter could find you anywhere. For instance, imagine you are driving home after a long day at work, and just before you reach your destination, you get involved in an accident. The outcome of that crash is that someone ends up dead. If caught in this situation, your life, as you have known, may change forever. Even though it was an accident, an officer will charge you with either a felony or misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter. Based on the charges you are facing, you may be subjected to fines, incarceration, and license suspension.
You could avoid facing these penalties by seeking expert legal counsel. If you have been charged with vehicular manslaughter, an attorney can help you fight the charges to have them reduced or dismissed. For Los Angeles residents, contact The LA Criminal Defense Law Firm as soon as you get arrested. Our attorneys may be able to put the situation under control before it intensifies any further. As you read on, you will get to know what vehicular manslaughter is and why it is different from murder, plus the potential punishment in case of a conviction.
Defining Vehicular Manslaughter
Manslaughter is defined under Penal Code (PC) 192. It is the illegal killing of another person without the intention to do so. Manslaughter differs majorly from murder, which is defined as the unlawful killing of another party with malicious intent to do so. This means, if you did not have the motive to hurt or kill someone else, it would generally be categorized as manslaughter instead of murder.
Vehicular manslaughter’s constitutional definition is outlined in PC 192c. It is defined as causing the demise of someone else while operating a motor vehicle by neglectfully committing a legal action that could cause death or an illegal act that’s not a felony. In contrast, in case you killed a person when driving in the commission of a felony act, the prosecutor would charge you with PC 187, murder.
Neglectfully driving a vehicle includes speeding, texting while driving, talking on your phone, disobeying traffic rules, driving while intoxicated, etc.
You can also be accused of committing vehicular manslaughter when driving while intoxicated with drugs or alcohol. In this case, the prosecutor would charge you with either PC 191.5(a), gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated or PC 191.5(b), ordinary vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated. Note that unlike involuntary and voluntary manslaughter offenses, a vehicular manslaughter crime always happens when a person is driving a motor vehicle.
We have three types of crimes of vehicular manslaughter. You can be charged with one of these, depending on the facts of your specific case. They include:
- PC 192(c)(1), Vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence
- PC 192(c)(2), Ordinary vehicular manslaughter
- PC 192(c)(3), Vehicular manslaughter for monetary gain
PC 192(c)(1), Vehicular Manslaughter with Gross Negligence
For the prosecutor to sentence you for PC 192(c)(1), he/she has to substantiate various facts beyond any reasonable doubt. These facts include:
- While driving, you committed an infraction, misdemeanor, or you committed a legal action in a way that may lead to death
- You acted with gross carelessness
- Your act actions endangered people’s lives given the circumstances
- Your act resulted in the demise of another party
Here is a detailed explanation of these elements:
An Infraction, Misdemeanor, or Legal Act that would Cause Death
For a prosecuting attorney to convict you of vehicular homicide, you should have committed either:
- A lawful action in a manner that is more likely to result in death, or
- An offense that doesn’t qualify to be a felony
For instance, talking on your cell phone when driving on a freeway amounts to an infraction. Therefore, if you drive while talking on your phone and as a result, you cause a crash that leads to someone else’s death, you will face PC 192(c)(1) charges. Keep in mind that for you to be prosecuted under PC 192(c)(1), the unlawful act you committed should not be a felony. Otherwise, if it were a felony, you will most likely face murder charges
Gross carelessness is a crucial term when defining PC 192(c)(1), Vehicular Manslaughter. If the prosecuting attorney fails to show that the defendant’s actions were grossly negligent, the defendant might only be convicted of a misdemeanor (ordinary) vehicular manslaughter.
Gross negligence refers to more than usual or ordinary inattentiveness, carelessness, or mistake in judgment. It happens only when:
- Someone acts recklessly creating an increased risk of substantial physical injury or death, and
- A sensible individual would have been aware that behaving in the manner in which he/she did would create a risk of substantial physical injury or death
It is considered gross negligence only if one acts so dissimilar from how an average careful individual would act under the same circumstances. Also, this person’s acts have to show an actual disregard for human life.
Causing the Demise of Another Party
For the prosecuting attorney to convict you of PC 192(c)(1), your grossly careless actions must have caused the passing away of another person. By this, it implies that the demise has to be the natural, direct, and probable outcome of your actions. In simple terms, it means the death must be something a sensible individual would be aware is most likely to occur.
Note that your grossly negligent action needs not to be the sole cause of loss of life for you to be convicted of PC 192(c)(1). Provided it is among the substantial factors causing the death, you will be guilty.
PC 192(c)(2), Misdemeanor (Ordinary) Vehicular Manslaughter
PC 192(c)(2) defines the misdemeanor (ordinary) vehicular manslaughter offense. For a prosecutor to convict you of this crime, he/she must prove these facts beyond a reasonable doubt:
- While driving, you committed an infraction, misdemeanor, or committed a legal action illegally
- You acted with normal/ordinary negligence
- Your act endangered people's lives given the circumstances
- Your action led to the demise of someone else
The primary difference between PC 192(c)(1) and PC 192(c)(2) is that PC 192(c)(2) requires the prosecutor to only prove negligence and not gross negligence. Regular/ordinary negligence means that the defendant failed to exercise reasonable care in preventing a reasonably foreseeable injury to another person.
Whether your behavior is grossly or ordinarily negligent depends on the facts surrounding your situation. For instance, speeding is an act that can be considered ordinarily or grossly negligent. In case you were driving at 100 miles per hour in a zone designated for 30 miles per hour, your action would most likely be ruled as grossly negligent. On the other hand, if you were driving at 40 miles per hour in a zone designated for 30 miles per hour, your behavior will possibly be considered ordinarily negligent.
PC 192(c)(3), Vehicular Manslaughter for Monetary Gain
Vehicular homicide for monetary gain is a select category of vehicular homicide defined under PC 192(c)(3). This offense happens in case:
- While driving, you intentionally participated in or caused an accident
- You initiated the crash to defraud another person or your insurance company
- You caused the collision when you were fully aware that its motive was to file false insurance claims for monetary gain. (that is, commit motor vehicle insurance fraud)
- The accident resulted in someone else’s death
Thus, in other terms, vehicular manslaughter for financial benefits means killing a person by accident while purposefully wrecking your car to commit an insurance fraud offense.
Vehicular manslaughter cases usually involve accidents in which the passenger or driver of the vehicle you hit passes away from the crash-related injuries. However, you could also be charged with this offense in case the passenger you were carrying in your car dies due to negligent behavior. The main issues a prosecutor must establish are whether you were operating the vehicle when the accident happened and whether your conduct was criminally negligent.
Vehicular Manslaughter Penalties
The sentencing and punishment for PC 192(c) depend on the type of crime of which you have been accused. They are as follows:
The Penalties for PC 192(c)(1)
PC 192(c)(1) is considered a wobbler offense. A wobbler offense means that the prosecutor can charge you with either a felony or a misdemeanor. Whether you are accused of a felony or misdemeanor depends on two factors:
- Your criminal record, and
- The facts of your specific offense
If charged with a misdemeanor offense, the possible penalties you will face include summary probation, up to $1,000 in fines, and a maximum county jail sentence of one year. If charged with a felony, your punishment may include felony probation, two, four, or six years of a state prison sentence and a maximum fine of $1,000.
The Punishment for PC 192(c)(2)
Ordinary (misdemeanor) Vehicular Homicide under PC 192(c)(2) has the following penalties: informal probation, a maximum fine of $1,000, and a county jail sentence of one year.
Penalties for PC 192(c)(3)
Vehicular homicide for monetary gain or insurance motive is always charged as a felony. Its possible punishments include four, six, or ten years in prison and a maximum fine of $10,000.
In case the court finds you guilty of PC 192(c)(1) or PC 192(c)(3), the DMV will suspend your privilege to drive. After the suspension, you won’t be allowed to reinstate the license until after a minimum of three years from the suspension date. If you operate a vehicle during the time your driver’s license is suspended, you will be subjected to additional charges of driving with a suspended driver’s license as per VC 14601.
Legal Defenses to Charges of Vehicular Manslaughter
It’s a fact that accidents occur when vehicles are driven. However, in some instances, law enforcement officers and prosecuting attorneys respond to horrific tragedies by charging drivers with vehicular manslaughter. This happens even in cases where these charges are unfair or unjust.
If you are unfairly charged with vehicular manslaughter, there are various legal defenses your attorney can use in an attempt to fight these charges. By challenging the charges, your attorney may get them dismissed or reduced. The defenses include:
- You didn’t Act with Gross Negligence or Negligence
Both gross negligence and negligence could be quite difficult to prove when it comes to PC 192(c) cases. Their definitions refer to the standard behavior of a sensible person. This may sound objective, but in the real sense, it is subjective in itself and quite tricky to define.
Operating a vehicle needs every driver to make swift decisions. As a result, it may be challenging to prove that these particular decisions, whereas they finally turned out to be worse, were that bad that they qualify to be reckless.
Alternatively, if the prosecutor had charged you with PC 192(c)(1), your lawyer may successfully convince the judge that you acted with ordinary negligence, not gross negligence. If he/she manages to do so, your possible penalties may be reduced. You may also not face the mandatory three-year license suspension.
- Your Negligence Did Not Lead to the Death of the Victim
Determining the cause and impact in situations that involve vehicle accidents can be hard. Even if a person drove with gross negligence or negligence and another person died, there’s a possibility that the prosecutor cannot establish that the death was due to negligence. It could be the carelessness of the third party or the victim himself/herself that led to the demise. If your attorney can show that it was not your negligence that caused the victim’s death, you cannot be convicted of vehicular manslaughter.
A skilled lawyer knows how he/she can challenge the prosecutor's account of the events that took place on the day of the accident. Often, he/she will seek assistance from an accident reconstruction expert witness.
- Mistaken Identity
For a prosecutor to convict you of vehicular manslaughter, he/she must show it was you that was behind the wheel at the time of the collision. If he/she cannot prove this, then your chances of being found innocent will be high. Your attorney could argue that it was a case of mistaken identity, that it was not you who was driving. It could be that there was a mistake in witness identification, which led to your wrongful arrest. Or, it could be that the car was registered to your name, but you had given it to someone else to drive at the time of the accident.
- You Faced an Emergency, and Thus, You Acted Reasonably Given the Circumstances
PC 192(c) statute provides that, in case the defendant had an emergency, he/she should only use similar judgment and care that an ordinary careful individual would use under a similar situation. If you did that, the court would not find your behavior to be grossly negligent or negligent.
For instance, you may have swerved into an oncoming car. However, you only did that to avoid running over a pothole or hitting an animal that would otherwise have damaged your automobile. If this was the case, your attorney could claim that your act was not careless enough to have you convicted of vehicular manslaughter.
- Self-defense or Defense of Another
Self-defense could be that you used the car to hit someone else who was pointing a gun at you. Or, that you drove extremely recklessly to prevent a passenger you were carrying from killing you. It could be that the passenger pulled a gun or knife on you, and you quickly turned the steering wheel to make the passenger lose control. Or, there may have been an ongoing fight in the vehicle before you collided with another innocent driver or pedestrian.
Defense of another person means you were using the vehicle to prevent significant harm to someone else, for instance, a member of the family. This could mean you rear-ended another person at high speed or sideswiped another vehicle leading to the death of another person.
Related Offenses to Vehicular Manslaughter
There are various crimes related to vehicular manslaughter that a prosecutor may charge you with along with or instead of PC 192(c). Let us have a look at them:
PC 191.5 Gross Vehicular Manslaughter while Intoxicated/ Vehicular Manslaughter while Intoxicated
PC 191.5 vehicular manslaughter when DUI is a distinct and separate offense from PC 192(c) vehicular manslaughter. PC 191.5 only applies if you are accused of causing another person’s death when driving while intoxicated with drugs or alcohol. PC 191.5(a) is the law on gross vehicular manslaughter while DUI, while PC 191.5(b) defines ordinary vehicular manslaughter while DUI.
PC 191.5(a), Gross Vehicular Manslaughter while DUI refers to the illegal killing of another person while operating a vehicle with gross carelessness and while intoxicated. Driving when under the influence means operating a vehicle either:
- While intoxicated with alcohol as per VC 23152(a)
- With a blood alcohol level of 0.08% or more under VC 23152(b)
- With a blood alcohol concentration of 0.05% or more while below the age of 21 years
- While intoxicated with drugs under VC 23152(f)
PC 191.5(b) ordinary vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated minus gross recklessness is charged as a wobbler. Its punishment includes a maximum of one year in jail or sixteen months, two, or three years in state prison. On the other hand, PC 195.5(a), Gross Vehicular Manslaughter while DUI is charged as a felony. Its consequences include four, six, or ten years of a prison sentence.
Note that a combination of operating a car while intoxicated with drugs or alcohol and breaking traffic laws is not by itself enough to prove gross negligence. In assessing whether your behavior was grossly negligent, your extent of intoxication has to be considered. Additionally, how you drove plus any additional and relevant points of your actions have to be considered too.
Also, proving you committed an illegal act to add on your DUI doesn’t require proving that you committed an inherently treacherous infraction or misdemeanor. Instead, it only needs the prosecutor to show that you committed a dangerous act, given the circumstances. Grossly negligent actions are hazardous by definition.
PC 192(c) is a lesser offense compared to PC 191.5. Therefore, in case you are facing PC 191.5 charges, but the prosecution cannot persuade the court beyond a doubt that you were under the influence, you might be sentenced for PC 192(c) instead.
Terrible cases that involve deaths related to DUI are charged as murder instead of PC 192c. Specifically, you may be charged with DUI/Watson murder in case you kill someone else while driving while intoxicated and the following facts are true:
- You’re a repeat drunk-driving offender
- Either you were educated on the dangers associated with drunk-driving or were issued with Watson advisement upon your prior drunk-driving conviction
A Watson advisement refers to caution that it’s hazardous to human life for you to operate a vehicle while intoxicated with drugs. It also provides that if you kill a person while DUI, you can face murder charges. In California, DUI murder is charged under PC 187, Murder Law.
Fleeing the Scene of a Deadly Accident
Fleeing the accident scene after committing a vehicular manslaughter offense is addressed under PC 192.5(e). In case you commit vehicular manslaughter then leave the accident scene without providing the necessary information, your sentence will be enhanced. In this case, you will get an additional five years of a prison sentence. However, note that this sentence increment only applies if you have been found guilty of your initial vehicular manslaughter charges. You also need to have admitted to leaving the scene, or the police need to have established that you fled the accident scene.
Finding a Los Angeles Criminal Attorney Near Me
Fighting vehicular manslaughter charges can be overwhelming, especially if the evidence indicates that you did it. However, with an excellent legal defense strategy, you can get a lenient sentence even if you are charged with a more severe felony. For instance, instead of being incarcerated, the judge may grant you a probation sentence if you present a solid defense. If you are charged with vehicular manslaughter in Los Angeles, contact The LA Criminal Defense Law Firm at 310-935-1675. Our attorneys will advise you concerning your options, possible defenses to your charge, and the likely sentence in case of a conviction. And if you let us represent you, we will fight for you to ensure you get the best possible outcome for your situation.