When someone loses his or her life, it's not uncommon for an innocent person to be charged with manslaughter (or even murder) as a result, even when the death was an accident. And it's also all too common for simple mistakes and, perhaps acts of ordinary negligence, to be exaggerated by prosecutors into gross negligence, recklessness, or even malicious intent.
If you have been charged with manslaughter in Los Angeles or anywhere in Southern California, OR if there is a police investigation against you and you fear you may soon be charged with manslaughter - do not hesitate to contact Leah Legal today for immediate assistance!
We at Leah Legal have an intricate understanding of California manslaughter and related laws, as well as extensive practical experience in successfully defending our clients against such charges in local L.A. Area courts. Contact us anytime 24/7 at 818-484-1100, and we will give you a free legal consultation and can quickly get started on your case!
How Is "Manslaughter" Defined Under California Law?
Most people have heard of the crime called manslaughter but may not know its exact legal distinction from the related crime of murder. In general, murder requires "malice aforethought," which implies a strong degree of intentionality in the perpetrator. This could be "cold blooded" planning to kill, but it could also be a decision to engage in extremely reckless behavior likely to cause another person's death, without showing any regard for that person's safety or even "hoping" the reckless action might cause his/her death.
Additionally, if someone was killed as a result of the actions someone took while committing a felony, the prosecution will normally charge the defendant with murder rather than manslaughter - though that's not an absolute rule, and a plea bargain down to manslaughter is often possible. Anytime a wrongful death is caused, which is not purely accidental in the sense that the defendant did nothing illegal or reckless to cause the death, it's possible for murder or manslaughter to be charged, aside from any civil suit that may be filed. Anytime the state of mind of the defendant, or the circumstances (committing a felony), do not make it murder, manslaughter is likely to be charged instead.
Three Types of Manslaughter
In California, there is not only a distinction between manslaughter and murder, but there are in fact three types of manslaughter:
- Voluntary manslaughter
- Involuntary manslaughter
- Vehicular manslaughter
We will look at each these three classes of manslaughter below, along with the penalties and possible defense strategies for each charge.
Voluntary Manslaughter in California
Voluntary manslaughter is the "next step down" from a murder charge. It involves, as the name implies, a voluntary action that caused another person to die. Typically, voluntary manslaughter occurs during an intense argument or in some other tense, emotional situation - "in the heat of passion" or "in the heat of the moment." A sudden outburst of anger when provoked, pressed, or stressed might result in an act intended to inflict bodily harm on someone else.
If there was a prior plan to hurt or kill the person, murder could be charged instead of voluntary manslaughter. If there was no intention at all to hurt anyone or commit an act likely to hurt someone, involuntary manslaughter might be charged. Voluntary manslaughter is the "middle ground" between murder and involuntary manslaughter.
Many people commit involuntary manslaughter, for example, after discovering their spouse committed adultery, in the heat of a lover's quarrel, or during a fight or feud where both parties involved were combative. However, note that if enough time has elapsed between an act of provocation and the killing of another person, it would be considered premeditated and thus murder under California law.
California Penal Code Section 192 defines the three types of manslaughter, and Section 193 goes on to list the penalties.
Voluntary manslaughter is a felony. It is generally punishable by anywhere from 3 to 11 years in state prison.
The most common defenses used against a charge of voluntary manslaughter include:
- Self-defense. If there was an imminent threat of bodily harm or death and you used only reasonable and necessary force to prevent it, then it is self-defense and not manslaughter. This is true even if you only "reasonably thought" that the threat existed or that the force you used was necessary.
- Defense of others. The same rules that apply to self-defense also apply if you were defending someone else against an imminent threat of bodily harm.
- Involuntary intoxication. If someone else caused you to get drunk against your will, and that's the only reason that you acted the way you did, a manslaughter charged can be defeated on that basis.
- Lack of mental capacity. If you were insane or incapable of understanding what you were doing, that also can defeat a manslaughter charge.
Involuntary Manslaughter in California
Involuntary manslaughter is a lesser crime than voluntary manslaughter, but it's still a felony in California, punishable by 2 to 4 years in county jail OR in state prison and possibly a fine of up to $10,000.
Involuntary manslaughter lacks any intent to kill or to commit an act likely to kill another person. But it does involve committing an act that actually did lead to another person's death: either while committing a non-felony crime (if a felony, murder would be charged), OR while committing an otherwise lawful act but without due caution.
Here are a few examples of where involuntary manslaughter might be charged:
- A man steals a bicycle and rides it recklessly down the sidewalk to get away before the owner spots him. He accidentally hits a pedestrian, who ultimately dies of the resulting injuries.
- A construction supervisor threatens to fire his whole crew if they don't work despite a tornado warning and fierce winds and weather. They comply, and one of them dies when the storm strikes the construction site.
- A woman lets her dog run loose even though it has a history of attacking people. It attacks and kills a 5-year old boy at the park.
As you can see, involuntary manslaughter is a very serious offense, but does not rise to the level of voluntary manslaughter, much less murder.
Common defense strategies used against an involuntary murder charge include: Self-defense, Defense of others, Accidental killing with no reckless behavior, Lack of sufficient evidence, and False accusation.
Vehicular Manslaughter in California
When manslaughter is committed while operating a motor vehicle, it's a distinct crime in California, handled under PC 192c. Specifically, if someone causes the death of another person while driving an automobile AND while committing some other non-felony crime OR while engaging in a lawful act in a dangerously negligent manner, then he/she is guilty of PC 192c Vehicular Manslaughter. Note that if a person causes the death of another person while driving a vehicle and while committing a felony crime, it would be charged as murder instead of vehicular manslaughter.
If vehicular manslaughter is committed by someone voluntarily under the influence of alcohol/drugs, then Vehicular Manslaughter While Intoxicated would be charged.
If gross negligence was involved, then it's Vehicular Manslaughter with Gross Negligence. Gross negligence involves a misdemeanor, infraction, or an act that was dangerous given the situation. It goes beyond "ordinary negligence" and implies a more severe level of disregard for the lives and safety of others. Specifically, gross negligence means your actions were very likely to cause the death or bodily injury of others and you knew, or should have known, that that was the case.
If you commit both gross negligence and are under the influence of drugs/alcohol when you commit vehicular manslaughter, it will be charged as Gross Vehicular Manslaughter While Intoxicated.
Note that if the death of the victim is the direct, natural, or probable result of the defendant's negligent acts, then he/she "caused" that death under California law, for the purposes of a Vehicular Manslaughter charge. And even being a substantial causative factor is enough to result in a conviction - it doesn't necessarily have to have been the only cause.
Possible Penalties for Vehicular Manslaughter
PC 192 Vehicular Manslaughter with ordinary negligence is a misdemeanor, punishable by a year in county jail, a $1,000 fine, and summary probation. The same punishment could apply if vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence is charged as a misdemeanor. But, vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence as a felony is punishable by 2 to 6 years in state prison, a fine of up to $10,000, and formal probation.
Vehicular manslaughter for financial gain (such as in insurance fraud schemes) is a felony, punishable by 4 to 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine. Anyone convicted of vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence OR for financial gain will have their license revoked for a minimum of three years.
Vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated can be a felony or a misdemeanor, depending on the circumstances of each case and the defendant's past criminal record (if any.) As a misdemeanor, it is punishable by up to 12 months in county jail; as a felony, it can be punished by 16 months, 2 years, or 3 years in state prison.
Gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated is a felony, punishable by 4 to 10 years in state prison.
What About "Watson Murder?"
It is possible for a DUI-caused death to be prosecuted as murder instead of vehicular manslaughter in some cases. You can be charged with DUI murder or "Watson Murder" as it's often called, if:
- You caused the death of another person while driving a motor vehicle.
- You were under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time.
- It was not your first DUI offense.
- You were duly informed of the danger DUIs pose to others on the road and/or you were given the Watson Warning to that effect around the time of a previous DUI conviction.
However, it is not true that everyone who causes the death of another person while intoxicated can be prosecuted for murder. Watson Murder is a specific offense that requires additional elements of the crime to be proved beyond all doubt, as compared to the crime of vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated.
Common Defense Strategies Against Vehicular Manslaughter
At Leah Legal, we use a variety of defense strategies against the charge of vehicular manslaughter. The exact defense used will vary based on which type of vehicular manslaughter is being charged and based on the details of the case.
Here are a few of our most commonly used defenses against this charge:
- Lack of Negligence.
Mistakes happen, and decisions made while driving that seemed right at the time might end up causing an accident and a death. That doesn't necessarily equal "negligence." And without negligence, it's not vehicular manslaughter (unless a crime was being committed at the time by the defendant) - it's just an accident.
- Lack of Gross Negligence
In some cases, negligence may have existed, but the prosecution may wrongly try to exaggerate it into "gross negligence." Defeating that attempt can greatly reduce the charge/sentence.
- Lack of Causality
Even if, in fact you were negligent (or grossly negligent) while driving, unless that negligence can be shown to have caused the death of the victim, it's not manslaughter. It might be an accident merely, or it might even have been someone else's act of negligence that caused the death.
- Sudden, Unexpected Emergency
If you were suddenly faced with an unanticipated emergency and acted reasonably under the circumstances, it is not negligence nor is it vehicular manslaughter in California.
Contact Us Today for Immediate Assistance!
At Leah Legal, we have deep experience in defending against all manner of California manslaughter charges, as well as related charges like first or second degree murder or vehicular homicide. We consistently strive to win the best possible outcome for our clients, be that a dismissal, acquittal, or a reduced charged/sentence. We will know how to build you a solid defense and win your case!