If you or a loved one are currently facing charges of vehicular manslaughter, or a similar charge, in California, you are facing one of the most serious types of driving crimes covered in the California Penal Code. Needless to say, the consequences of a conviction would be far-reaching and long-lasting, both in regard to the actual sentence and in regard to how your criminal record could affect your reputation and your ability to find gainful employment.
At our criminal defense law firm, we understand the gravity of the situation when a vehicular manslaughter charge is involved. Any crime that results in the loss of the life of another is very serious indeed, but there are also many cases where vehicular manslaughter is wrongfully charged. We know how to get to the bottom of what really happened and defeat or reduce false or exaggerated charges.
To learn more about vehicular manslaughter defense in Los Angeles and Southern California and to avail yourself of a free legal consultation, contact us 24/7 at 818-484-1100.
What Is "Vehicular Manslaughter?"
Under California Penal Code Section 192c, vehicular manslaughter is defined as operating a motor vehicle in a negligent manner so that the driver's negligence results in the death of another person in an auto accident.
Simple vehicular manslaughter is distinguished from gross vehicular manslaughter in that the former involves only "ordinary negligence," while the latter involves "gross negligence" and often also involves intoxication with alcohol or drugs. Vehicular manslaughter is also distinguished from "vehicular homicide" or "Watson murder," which is a second-degree murder charge. Thus, while vehicular manslaughter ranks as among the most serious driving crimes, there are a couple driving crime charges that are even more severe in nature.
Most of the time, vehicular manslaughter occurs when a driver breaks a traffic law, commits some other driving crime, or drives in a reckless or inattentive manner. This then leads to a collision in which someone is severely injured and ultimately loses his or her life due to the injury.
Note that it still counts as vehicular manslaughter even if the person killed in the car accident was riding as a passenger in the vehicle you were driving. So long as there was "criminal negligence" that caused the death of another person, it is vehicular manslaughter.
Also note that, while you will hear that a law must have been broken in order for an act to count as vehicular manslaughter, this is a bit misleading to those unfamiliar with California law. For, a legal act done in a negligent manner is considered an illegal act, so that most non-lawyers would probably say that either an illegal act or a legal but negligent act leading to the death of another constitutes vehicular manslaughter.
Finally, be aware that while the unlawful or negligent act must be a direct cause of the death of the victim, such that the death would not have occurred without it, it need not be the only or even the main cause of death. It cannot be a trivial, incidental cause. It must be a "substantial" cause of death. But it can be one among several substantial causes.
What Must the Prosecution Prove?
To prove you guilty of PC 192c (vehicular manslaughter), the prosecution must establish the following "elements of the crime" beyond all reasonable doubt:
- You committed a traffic violation, a misdemeanor crime, and/or were criminally negligent while operating a motor vehicle.
- Your actions were, in the circumstances in which they were performed, likely to risk the life of another person and you could reasonably be expected to realize that they posed such a risk.
- Another person, whether in your own vehicle, another vehicle, or a pedestrian, lost his/her life as a result of your act of unlawful and/or negligent driving.
Possible Punishments for Vehicular Manslaughter
Vehicular manslaughter is always a very serious offense, but it can be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on the facts of the case and on the defendant's past criminal record.
If "ordinary" negligence was involved, then vehicular manslaughter will be charged as a misdemeanor. "Ordinary negligence" consists of failing to drive with the level of caution a reasonable person would be expected to exercise in the same situation. Misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter is punishable by a maximum of 12 months in county jail.
If "gross" negligence was involved, then vehicular manslaughter will always be charged as a felony. "Gross negligence" consists of actions that exhibit a willful, reckless disregard for the safety of others, though it does not involve intentionally trying to hurt anyone. Felony-level vehicular manslaughter is punishable by 2 to 6 years in state prison.
You will also likely lose your driver's license for any vehicular manslaughter conviction, and the judge may impose probation and other penalties as well.
And if you committed a hit and run along with vehicular manslaughter during the same incident, you can see up to 5 years added to your prison sentence.
When Vehicular Manslaughter Is Combined With DUI
When you are convicted of DUI and vehicular manslaughter for the same incident, the penalties will become significantly more severe. Even ordinary negligence combined with a DUI can get you 4 years in prison, and misdemeanor-level vehicular manslaughter with DUI will also automatically expose you to prosecution under VC 23153 (DUI causing injury) as well.
However, note that driving DUI cannot count as both the basis of the DUI charge and as the negligent/illegal act underlying the vehicular manslaughter charge. The prosecution must prove you guilty of some other act of negligence besides the DUI to gain such a conviction. The act need not be "inherently dangerous," but it must have been dangerous under the circumstances.
The most serious way for DUI to be combined with vehicular manslaughter is under PC 191.5a, which covers the crime of "gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated." This is always a felony and is punishable by 4 to 10 years in state prison. And if there are additional victims who survived but suffered "great bodily injury," an additional 3 to 6 years of prison time can be added. This crime is a strike on your criminal record under California's Three Strikes law. But note that you cannot be charged with DUI separately if charged with gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated since the latter includes the former already.
Finally, note that committing vehicular manslaughter while driving DUI can sometimes be charged as second-degree murder, called "Watson Murder." Under PC 187, a vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated charge amounts to second-degree murder if the driver acted with "malice aforethought." This is established by showing you were aware of the fact that driving under the influence of alcohol/drugs endangers the lives of others and yet chose to do it anyway. Generally, this can only be established if you had a prior DUI conviction since those convicted of DUI must sign a form saying they understand the dangers of driving DUI and/or take DUI classes that elaborate on the point. A conviction on charges of "Watson Murder" is punishable by 15 years to life imprisonment and a fine of up to $10,000.
Possible Defense Strategies Against Vehicular Manslaughter
While some might suppose their situation to be hopeless once formally accused of committing vehicular manslaughter, we at Leah Legal know different. We have handled many of this class of cases in the past and have obtained dismissals, acquittals, and reduced charges/sentences.
We always tailor the defense to the details of the case, customizing each defense rather than using a "cookie cutter approach." Nevertheless, there are admittedly common general defense types that come up again and again in vehicular manslaughter cases, including these:
- Lack of criminal negligence.
It may be that you committed no illegal action nor did you act in a criminally negligent manner while driving your motor vehicle. The mere fact that an accident happened and a loved one died as a result may have led the victim's family pressing charges even though it was simply an accident and not your fault.
- Lack of cause of death.
In other cases, it may be true that the defendant committed a driving crime or an otherwise legal act that was criminally negligent. Yet, that does not in itself prove that the death of the victim was due to the defendant's actions. It could be that the other driver was also negligent, that the weather conditions contributed to the fatality, or that mechanical problems in either of the vehicles were to blame. The prosecution must show that the accident was your fault and that the accident was the cause of both injury and death to the victim. This is not at all always the case, and so must be proved rather than assumed.
- You were not the driver.
In some cases, the fact that your vehicle was involved in an accident leads to your being formally charged with a driving crime, even one as serious as vehicular manslaughter, despite the fact you were not the one driving your vehicle at the time of the accident. You may have loaned your vehicle to a friend or family member or it may have been stolen. If you can establish such facts or at least show an alibi to prove you were not at the scene of the accident when it happened, you will be found "not guilty."
- Lack of gross negligence.
In felony-level vehicular manslaughter charges, a reduction to a misdemeanor charge will greatly reduce the sentence. By showing that your actions, while negligent, did not display utter disregard for human life and for the safety of others, we can establish it was only ordinary instead of gross negligence and win a charge reduction.
- Lack of intoxication.
In cases where DUI is involved, and especially in gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated charges, Leah Legal will work to undermine the DUI element of the charge as well as the vehicular manslaughter element. As DUI adds to your sentence of creates an additional separate sentence, this is a critical area to focus on. We can use any of the many defenses we use in ordinary DUI cases, such as police misconduct, a still-rising BAC, failure to adhere to Title 17 in storing blood samples, or medical conditions that mimic the effects of alcohol on one's system.
At Leah Legal, we have deep experience at defending against all manner of vehicular manslaughter and related offenses in various ways. We know how to match the best defense to each particular case and how to use the details of the incident and of the defendant's past record (or lack of one) to your advantage.
Even for lesser crimes, it is wise to enlist the help of an experienced defense attorney who is familiar with both the law and the local court processes. But with a charge like vehicular manslaughter, it is absolutely imperative that you avail yourself of the best possible representation.
Contact Us Today for Assistance
Here at Leah Legal, we are always ready to rush to your defense in your hour of need. We do not shy away from high-stakes cases like vehicular manslaughter, and we have a long track record of winning these kinds of cases in local Los Angeles Area courts.
If you are facing a vehicular manslaughter charge, do not risk walking into the courtroom unrepresented or under-represented. Contact our criminal lawyer anytime 24/7/365 by calling 818-484-1100, and we will immediately give you a free consultation and begin building you a solid defense.