According to statistics by the National Safety Council (NSC), the US registered a total of 40,000 road fatalities in the year 2018 alone. Over 60% of these accidents occurred due to the driver’s behavior, either justifiably or due to sheer negligence.

Often, the involved driver is arrested and charged with Vehicular Manslaughter. Surprisingly, many people don’t understand this offense and the possible charges it attracts if one is found guilty. In this article, we will discuss this offense in detail, and even recommend some of the best defenses from the experts at Orange County DUI Defense Lawyer.

Definition of Vehicular Manslaughter

Under the California Law PC 192(c), vehicular manslaughter refers to the act of causing another person’s death while driving a car, commonly referred to as ‘behind-the-wheel killing.’ For a road-accident killing to qualify as manslaughter, the prosecution must prove that the act was illegal and out of sheer negligence. In this context, you must have not necessarily broken the law, but if your action is considered negligent and one that led to death, then you can be charged with vehicular manslaughter.

How is the Level of Negligence Tested?

Everyone owes another person a duty of care. For instance, when operating a vehicle, you assume specific responsibilities towards other road users, including obeying traffic lights, following given road rules and regulations, and ensuring safe driving. Anytime you deviate from these responsibilities, and in the process, another person is injured, then that becomes negligence. Surprisingly, a simple act like, for example, taking your eyes off the road to sip some coffee or converse with a passenger can is also considered as negligence.

However, not all deaths on the roads are charged as vehicular manslaughters due to negligent driving. The prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that your unlawful behavior led to the death. Like for instance, you were speeding, fleeing from the police, driving under the influence, or drag racing.

Types of Vehicular Manslaughters

Vehicular manslaughter results from different circumstances, and every situation is named differently and attracts a separate penalty. Some of the classifications include:

Gross Vehicular Manslaughter- The cutting line of any vehicular manslaughter charge lies on whether the suspect acted in gross negligence or not. If the prosecutor fails to prove that a driver acted in gross negligence, then the case drops to normal vehicular manslaughter that attracts lesser charges. Gross negligence goes way beyond normal inattentiveness, carelessness, and judgment errors. For a charge to qualify as gross vehicular manslaughter, then it has to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt that a person acted very differently from what an ordinary person could do in the same situation and that the person disregarded human life hence the accident. In most cases, the prosecution should define whether the person is of sound mind or not.

Misdemeanor Vehicular Manslaughter- It is also referred to as Ordinary vehicular manslaughter. This is considered as the lighter version for gross vehicular manslaughter and mainly occurs if a person negligently causes the death of another person. Probably by violating traffic rules like speeding, reckless driving, or ignoring traffic lights. In other cases, this form of manslaughter is said to occur mostly when a person does a lawful act that leads to an unlawful death.

The main difference between gross vehicular manslaughter and misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter is the level of negligence. While the former requires proof of negligence, the latter only requires a simple proof of neglect. The charges of the two offenses are also very different.

Insurance Fraud Vehicular Manslaughter- This is another distinctive form of vehicular manslaughter under the penal code 192(c) (3) of California. The cause must not necessarily be an insurance fraud case but provided that a death was caused for the motorist to get any financial gain; then the offense automatically qualifies as ‘vehicular manslaughter for financial gain.’ Some of the factors that are used to prove these charges include:

  1. You intentionally caused a wreck on the car

  2. The main cause of the wrecking is to assist you in filing a false insurance claim or gaining financial benefits

  3. In the cause of the wrecking, an accident occurs, and a person is killed

If found culpable of this offense, you are not only charged with insurance fraud vehicular manslaughter offense, but you can also face an auto insurance fraud charge under California. PC § 192.

Penalties for Vehicular Manslaughter

As outlined above, vehicular manslaughter can be classified into different forms, and each type attracts a separate punishment. The severity of the sentence depends on whether the offense resulted from unlawful behavior, gross or ordinary negligence. These penalties include:

Vehicular Manslaughter with Gross Negligence- Under the laws of California, PC 192(c) (1), this form of manslaughter is treated as a wobbler. In this context, it can either be a misdemeanor or a felony offense mainly depending on the circumstance that the crime occurred, the prosecution evidence and the defense presented, or your past criminal record.

If treated as a misdemeanor, some of the possible consequences include:

  • A jail term of up to a year in county jail

  • A fine not exceeding $1000

  • A combination of the two penalties, or

  • Misdemeanor summary probation

On the other end, if the case is taken as a felony, the following penalties can be put through:

  • Imprisonment of 2 (two), 4 (four) or 6 (six) years in a California state prison

  • A total fine not exceeding $10000

  • A combination of the two

In this case, the prosecution targets to prove the offense to help escalate the charges to a felony, but with the help of qualified attorneys from Orange County DUI Defense Attorneys, then countering the prosecution becomes very simple.

Misdemeanor/Ordinary Vehicular Manslaughter- If you can prove that a lawful act led to the death on the road, then your case becomes lesser. Only if the court treats it as ordinary vehicular manslaughter under the Penal code 192(c) (2). Some of the possible consequences include:

  • A sentence not exceeding a year in county jail

  • A fine not exceeding $1000

  • A combination of the two

  • Vehicular manslaughter for financial gain

Under the laws of California Penal code 192 (c) (3), any form of a vehicular accident caused for monetary benefits and as a result someone dies is treated a felony. Some of the consequences include:

  • A fine not exceeding $10000

  • A jail term of up to 4 (four), 6 (six), or 10 (ten) years in state prison

  • A combination of the two

Suspension of driver’s license- In California, almost all road-related offenses lead to a temporary or permanent suspension of the driver’s license. In the case of vehicular manslaughter, two offenses can result in the revocation of the license. These include vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence under the PC 192 (c) (1), or vehicular manslaughter for financial gain, under the PC 192 (c) (3). If found culpable of either of the two offenses, your license is withdrawn for at least three years after sentencing. This helps you to revisit your driving habits, and in worse cases, the courts can recommend a refresher of your driving course. In case you attempt to drive during the suspension period, then additional charges can be made, and in most cases, your driver’s license is permanently revoked.

How Can You Defend Yourself in The Case of a Vehicular Manslaughter Charge?

Although no accident should be celebrated, it is evident that some don’t necessarily occur due to outright negligence from the motorists. Some may be due to an emergency, and the driver was reasonable to act and as a result, hit a pedestrian. However, most of the prosecutors and police rush to press manslaughter charges against motorists even when the reason is unjustifiable. Below are some of the possible defenses you can use to reduce the charges or facilitate the complete dismissal of the case. They include:

Your actions didn’t lead to gross negligence- In every vehicular manslaughter case, it becomes challenging to draw the line between negligence and gross negligence. The prosecution must prove that the offense was committed by a reasonable person, who acted irresponsibly. While driving, a motorist is expected to make a very instant decision, and it can be complicated to prove that a decision was out of negligence, making it a possible defense to terminate the case, or reduce the impact.

However, the amount of negligence is left to the jury to decide, based on the evidence placed. To save yourself, your defense team should attempt to prove that even though your actions led to the death of an individual, the impact wasn’t due to gross negligence. In most cases, medical reports to determine whether you were mentally sane during the incident could be conducted to help demystify this fact.

The death wasn’t caused by your negligence- Road carnages are caused by different reasons, not necessarily due to a negligent motorist. For instance, the victim might be crossing the road at a hotspot, and you accidentally hit them. However, since the pedestrian is dead, the prosecution then finds it simpler to pave the case your way. In this case, you can use eyewitnesses to prove your innocence, or if the accident occurred on major highways, one could request for CCTV footage to help define who was in the wrong. The prowess with which this defense is presented will determine the intensity of the penalty. Once you manage to convince the jury that you were not in the wrong, or you were attempting to save your life or that of another person when you accidentally hit the said pedestrian, then you don’t have a case to answer.

Your actions were caused by a sudden emergency- Emergencies are normal on the roads. The driver might have fallen ill and probably collapsed during transit, another motorist might have confused you, or even your car might have gotten an emergency breakdown, like brake failure, leading to the accident. For the court to determine that the crash was a result of an emergency, then they have to prove that the same decision you made after getting the emergency, would be the exact similar one any other person could have made in such a situation. If you did exactly that, then you should not be charged with gross negligence. Moreover, even though you will face prosecution, then the charges might be lighter.

You didn’t have an intention to solicit funds from the accident- Under the Law of California, PC 192 (C) (3), you must have shown interest to solicit funds after causing an accident. However, it can be tough for the prosecution to prove such intentions. To help you avoid such charges, you should ensure immediate reporting to the police after the accident occurs, and avoid the quick and illegal filing of compensation suits. You are advised to immediately consult a professional lawyer to guide you through the filing. Remember, if any of your actions show that you had intentions to get money at the expense of the casualty quickly, then you will fall victim to the charges. Depending on the defense filed, such a claim can be reduced to normal vehicular manslaughter that attracts lighter penalties, and at the same time, reduces the risk of license withdrawal.

Failure to follow the legal police procedures- The Supreme Court of the United States has outlined some of the legal processes that all police officers should abide before making any arrests. The law mainly focuses on a suspect’s privacy during arrests and forms a boundary between the arresting officer and the suspect. Under these guidelines, all traffic officers are expected to first make an announcement of a possible traffic stopover in a given area, the officer is limited to only search for incriminating evidence in your car, and every suspect should be read their Miranda rights before an arrest. Most experienced Attorneys use this as the run to defense to reduce the intensity of the penalties. If you manage to prove that a given code of this act was ignored, then your defense team should request the jury to drop the evidence. In some cases, if there was a total disregard of this code of conduct by officers, then all evidence is dropped and the entire case terminated.

Related Offenses

Most vehicular manslaughter cases are tied with other similar or analogous cases to help the case become tighter on the prosecutor's side. If well convinced, the court immediately ties up the two cases with separate counts, which in return escalates your penalties. Some of the cases that are possibly related to vehicular manslaughter include:

Gross Vehicular Manslaughter while Intoxicated- under the laws of California, PC 191.5, general vehicular manslaughter is very different from vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated. One is charged with the latter if you caused death while you were allegedly driving under the influence of alcohol. Generally, DUI offenses attract hefty charges in the USA, but if a death occurs in the process, then the case becomes even more complicated. Just like in the normal vehicular manslaughter, this one is as well classified as ‘due to gross negligence,’ or ‘without gross negligence.’

Similarly, the two attract different penalties, as outlined below:

  • Vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated (without gross negligence) – Under the California law PC 191.5 (b), this is treated as wobbler and attracts a jail term of up to 1 (one) year in a county jail, or a total of 2(two) years, 3 (three) years or 16(sixteen) months in a state prison.

  • Vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated (with gross negligence) – Under the Penal Code 191.5 (c), this becomes a felony and can lead to state imprisonment of up to 4 (four), 6 (six) or 10 (ten) years depending on the defense presented, past criminal record and of course the jury’s disclosure.

Additionally, if the prosecution cannot prove that your level of intoxication ultimately affected your reasonability, then you get a lighter charge under PC 192(c).

DUI Murder- DUI murder, otherwise called Watson Murder, is a form of murder that occurs after egregious driving. Unlike the other cases that are treated under penal code 192 (c), this one is treated as pure murder and attracts the charges of a murderer. For the prosecution to press such charges, one of the following factors must be true:

  • It is your second time to commit the DUI murder

  • You had previously been educated regarding the dangers of DUI

  • You have a Watson Advisement issued after a previous DUI conviction

Under the law, a Watson Advisement is defined as the warning that shows you that driving under the influence is extremely perilous, and in case you kill someone while driving under the influence, then you are automatically charged with murder. The Watson advisement compels suspects to be more reasonable on the roads, and if broken, one is charged under the Penal Code 187.

FAQs on Vehicular manslaughter

Can gross vehicular manslaughter be charged as a misdemeanor?

No. Provided that there is an aspect of gross negligence in the case, then the case only qualifies as a felony. However, if you manage to prove that you never acted in gross negligence, only then can your case be treated as a wobbler. In this case, you can be charged with a misdemeanor or felony, depending on the defense presented.

What is the main difference between ordinary and gross negligence?

Gross negligence weighs above normal carelessness, inattentiveness or misjudgment. A case qualifies as gross negligence if you act recklessly in a way that creates severe injury or death risks to a party. In this context, a reasonable person must have known that acting in the way you did, might have the purported repercussions. On the peripheral, ordinary negligence occurs when you act unlawfully under the law. In our case, if whatever you did was unlawful, but in your situation, you took the action that every reasonable person could have taken.

What is the meaning of a strike under the Three-Strikes Law of California?

This is a law that aims at severely punishing repeat offenders. Strikes mostly apply to some felony crimes. For instance, if you are charged with a felony, yet you had previously been served with a strike, the second offense then attracts a second imprisonment term. On the other hand, if you have two strike orders under your cuff, and you are convicted again with a felony, then the jail term escalates to between 25 years and life imprisonment.

Can you reduce the charges of Gross Vehicular Manslaughter to lesser crimes?

As earlier discussed in the defenses section, any form of vehicular manslaughter can be reduced, depending on the prosecutor’s evidence and the defense given. In this case, if you manage to prove that the intention to commit a crime was not deliberate, then the charge can be dropped to normal vehicular manslaughter. This helps to save you from harsh rulings like withdrawal of your driver’s license.

What is the maximum penalty for Vehicular Manslaughter in California?

For every driver, revocation of the driver’s license counts as one of the heftiest penalties. However, you may get to court with good defenses, but after the hearing, the court might be convinced that you not only qualify for normal vehicular manslaughter but in your case, it is treated as murder. This is a significant blow to anyone, and can even lead to life imprisonment. However, under normal circumstances, the maximum penalty given can go for a maximum of 10 years.

Find an Orange County DUI Lawyer Near Me

After a gruesome road accident, anyone can be arrested and charged with vehicular manslaughter in Orange County. However, the choice of your legal team will determine whether you are acquitted or convicted for the offense. At Orange County DUI defense Lawyer, we provide a team of legal experts, with vast experience handling vehicular manslaughter cases, to help increase the chances of a win in the case. Please contact us today at 714-820-9592, and we will be more than glad to serve you.