If you or a loved one is charged with vehicular manslaughter, it is important to begin to understand the seriousness and severity of this crime. Vehicular manslaughter is a complicated and confusing crime to understand, often understood in contrast to pre-meditated murder. In its simplest form, vehicular manslaughter is a situation wherein the driver of a car or vehicle kills another human being without intent, malice, or pre-meditation. Importantly, a charge of vehicular manslaughter is only that – a charge or accusation. You have not been proven guilty, and you may not be, especially if you seek the right legal defense team.
At Long Beach Criminal Attorney, we are experts in defending our clients against criminal charges, including vehicular manslaughter. We work on cases across Long Beach and the wider Southern California region. With us, you can rely on a team of experienced defense attorneys and professional legal assistants. We stay up to date on the courts, judges, and trends on fighting criminal charges in the Long Beach area. But our knowledge and expertise aren’t the only things you can expect from us – we value our integrity and yours, so we will always treat you with respect, something you might not get from other defense attorneys out there.
If you are seeking some initial understanding and guidance on the serious crime of vehicular manslaughter, you can get started with this guide. We put this together as an introduction to the crime – what it is, how California state law treats it, how to prove or disprove guilt, and common defense tactics against vehicular manslaughter.
Note that this article is intended to be informational only. At no point should this information be used as legal advice. Only a professional attorney with understand of the details of your vehicular manslaughter charge can provide you specific legal counsel.
What is Vehicular Manslaughter?
Vehicular manslaughter can have various definitions and punishments depending on the jurisdiction. The State of California recognizes vehicular manslaughter is a crime that involves a person driving a motor vehicle who kills another person.
California actually recognizes several types of vehicular manslaughter, including gross, misdemeanor, fraud or financial gain, and gross or negligent vehicular manslaughter while under the influence of drugs or alcohol (intoxicated). We describe these various crimes in more detail later in this article.
Vehicular Manslaughter vs Manslaughter
Manslaughter can be a confusing term when talking about the crime of killing a person. As a legal definition, manslaughter usually refers to a situation wherein one person killed another person without previous intention or malice. It is generally treated less severely than murder, but it remains a significant crime with harsh consequences.
Within this legal definition of manslaughter, some state laws further subdivide types of manslaughter, including the State of California, which recognizes three types of manslaughter, including vehicular manslaughter. Importantly, vehicular manslaughter in California has further categories depending on the circumstances of the situation. As such, vehicular manslaughter is a type of homicide that is not pre-planned or intentional, and it falls under the legal umbrella of manslaughter.
Is Manslaughter the Same as Murder?
No, from a legal and criminal standpoint, manslaughter and murder are two different matters in the U.S. Though manslaughter is a serious crime resulting in the death of another person, similar to murder, manslaughter is generally understood and prosecuted as a lesser crime than murder. A person who is determined to be guilty of manslaughter is likely seen as less culpable (responsible) for the killing of the person than an intentional or pre-meditated murder.
Murder, then, is the opposite of manslaughter. Any situation wherein a person considers, plans, or otherwise intends to kill another person prior to the event in question typically falls under the legal definition for murder. While murder is seen as intentional, manslaughter is often determined by the non-intention of the person to commit the homicide.
Both murder and manslaughter, regardless of intent, generally fall under the legal definition for a killing or a homicide, wherein one person has killed another person, regardless of intent.
Manslaughter and the California Penal Code
California makes vehicular manslaughter illegal under at least five different Penal Code Sections.
California Penal Code Section 192 defines and makes illegal manslaughter as any unlawful or illegal killing of a human being without malice. This definition is further categorized into three types of manslaughter illegal in California:
Voluntary manslaughter, which may occur suddenly, such as in a fight or quarrel (though it may not be pre-meditated, as that would likely be considered murder).
Involuntary manslaughter, which may occur while the person is committing a legal or illegal act that results in death, likely due to a lack of caution or circumspection (prudence or risk aversion).
Vehicular manslaughter, which has additional parameters as to the type of vehicular manslaughter committed as well as the potential for proof, sentencing, and punishment.
California Penal Code Section 191.5(a) and 191.5(b) make a separate, illegal crime of the act of vehicular manslaughter while under the influence of drugs or alcohol. These are formally known as gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated and vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated.
Types of Vehicular Manslaughter in California
With these two Penal Code Sections, parts of Section 191 and all of Section 192, The State of California effectively categorizes five different types of vehicular manslaughter.
Vehicular manslaughter can fall under any of the following categories:
Vehicular Manslaughter with Gross Negligence
Of the vehicular manslaughters governed by Penal Code Section 192, this form is the most severe. Gross negligence vehicular manslaughter in California is any situation wherein you are driving a vehicle and you commit an infraction or a misdemeanor, typically a traffic situation, or you commit a legal act but in an unlawful way, and such an act threatens or is otherwise dangerous to one or more persons. Importantly, the act, whether illegal or not, you committed with gross or extreme negligence (as opposed to ordinary negligence such as forgetting to put on your right turn blinker). This act of gross negligence results in the death of another person.
This crime rests on the definition, and ability to prove, gross negligence, as well as how the death occurred. As defined by Penal Code Section 192(c)(1), gross negligence goes beyond mere inattentiveness, ordinary or regular carelessness, or a lapse or error in judgment. Instead, gross negligence occurs when both conditions are met:
The driver acts recklessly in such a manner that creates a high risk of great bodily injury or death.
And any reasonable person would know that acting in such a manner would result in such a high risk.
If the prosecuting lawyer is unable to establish gross negligence on your part, you may instead be charged with and prosecuted for the crime of misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter (see next section).
The resulting death of a person, due to gross negligence on the driver’s behalf, must also meet the circumstances of being direct, natural, and probable. A good way to understand this is that a reasonable person would expect or know such a death would occur from such a grossly negligent situation.
Another caveat to this law is that the driver’s gross negligence is not need to be the only cause of human death. Instead, it may be one of several substantial factors that resulted in the loss of human life.
Importantly, if the act you committed that threatened and resulted in death of another person was actually in line with a felony (the most severe and unlawful acts) as defined by California law, you shall not be charged and prosecuted under the lighter law, such as vehicular manslaughter. Instead, any felony crime that results in a death is made illegal by the felony-murder rule.
Misdemeanor Vehicular Manslaughter
Otherwise known as ordinary vehicular manslaughter, misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter is any situation wherein you are driving a vehicle and commit an infraction or a misdemeanor, typically a traffic situation, or you commit a legal act but in an illegal manner (such as making a legal turn on right, but doing so without checking for pedestrians in the crosswalk). This act, of regular negligence, put one or more human lives in danger, and resulted in the death of another person.
The difference between this misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter and gross negligence vehicular manslaughter lies in the form of negligence – ordinary negligence versus more extreme (gross) negligence.
Misdemeanor (ordinary) vehicular manslaughter is made illegal by California Penal Code Section 192(c)(2).
Vehicular Manslaughter for Financial Gain
This is a unique situation wherein you intentionally cause or otherwise participate in a vehicular collision that results in a person’s death. In this situation, you intend to take part in the collision in order to make an insurance claim for financial gain. Because your participation in the vehicular accident was not, in fact, accidental, it may result in a false and fraudulent claim on an insurance company.
In this case, the death of the person is likely accidental even though you did intend to wreck or destroy your car or the car of another person.
This type of vehicular manslaughter, intended for financial gain or insurance fraud, is governed by California Penal Code Section 192(c)(3).
Gross Vehicular Manslaughter While Intoxicated
A separate crime altogether, this crime is somewhat similar to vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence except for a significant addition: in this situation, the driver of the vehicle is intoxicated. The prosecuting team may seek this charge if they believe you were under the influence of alcohol, drugs, or both during the incident, and that you committed an act with gross (extreme or severe) negligence, both of which were significant contributing factors to the death of a human being.
The definition of intoxicated varies depending on the situation, but is generally made illegal by several California laws. As long as any of the following applies, you may be tried for gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated:
You met the definition for “under the influence”, as determined by California Vehicle Code Section 23152(a)
You had a blood alcohol content (BAC) level of .08 or greater, per California Vehicle Code Section 23152(b)
You had a BAC level of .05 or great and were under the age of 21, per California Vehicle Code Section 23140
You were driving under the influence (DUI) of drugs, as defined by California Vehicle Code Section 23152(f)
Gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated is made illegal by California Penal Code Section 191.5(a), a separate law from Penal Code Section 192, which governs the previous three categories of vehicular manslaughter.
Vehicular Manslaughter While Intoxicated
This crime of vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated requires that you were under the influence of alcohol, drugs, or both during the incident, and that you committed an act with ordinary (not gross) negligence, both of which were significant contributing factors to the death of a human being.
Gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated is made illegal by California Penal Code Section 191.5(b), a separate law from Penal Code Section 192.
Defending Against A Charge of Vehicular Manslaughter
Remember that a formal charge of vehicular manslaughter is only a charge; it is not a conviction, which is the decision that you are guilty of the crime in question.
In any charge of vehicular manslaughter, wherein another person or the State of California formally accuses you of this crime, the prosecuting lawyer (not your defense lawyer) must prove beyond a reasonable doubt two conditions:
That you, as the driver, committed a particular act that may be illegal or unlawful (such as an infraction or misdemeanor), but does not need to be illegal or unlawful (such as a legal right turn on a red traffic light).
That this particular act, legal or illegal, caused an incident, collision, or other situation wherein another person was killed.
If the prosecuting team is only able to prove, or attempt to prove, these two conditions, it is likely that they are prosecuting you for the crime of misdemeanor (ordinary) vehicular manslaughter. If they are seeking a different type of vehicular manslaughter, additional conditions must also be proved, such as your acting under gross negligence, while intoxicated by drugs or alcohol or both, or with intent to make a fraudulent claim on an insurance company for financial gain.
Punishment for Vehicular Manslaughter in California
If you are convicted (found guilty) of the crime of vehicular manslaughter, your punishment and penalty depend on the specifics of your situation.
Here are the typical penalties for a conviction of vehicular manslaughter in California:
If you are guilty of vehicular manslaughter in line with Penal Code Section 192, your penalty can include any combination of the following:
Time served in a county jail (not state prison) for two, three, or four years
A maximum fine of $10,000
Probation under the mandatory supervision of a probation officer
Suspension or reduction of your driver’s license
If you are guilty of vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated and without gross negligence, per Penal Code Section 191, this is a wobbler crime, wherein your punishment can be either:
Time served in a county jail (not a state prison) for one year, or
Imprisonment in a state prison (not a county jail) for 16 months, two years, or three years
If you are guilty of vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated and with gross negligence, you trigger the felony-murder rule, which automatically results in imprisonment in a state prison for four, six, or 10 years.
It is important to understand that these are the penalties that result in a conviction (determination of guilt) in a criminal case. Because vehicular manslaughter necessarily results in a person’s death, it is not uncommon for the victim’s family to seek retribution and damages in a civil court case. The result of this may be that you owe a significant amount of money to the family, depending on your case.
The best way to get ahead of a formal charge of vehicular manslaughter is to begin to understand your situation right away. Remember that a charge is only a charge – it is much more difficult to be proven guilty of such a crime. Start by understanding the differences in murder, manslaughter, and vehicular manslaughter. Explore your options and resources by talking with a lawyer who specializes in vehicular manslaughter defenses. It is prudent to meet with several attorneys before choosing the best one for your case. Once you hire a lawyer, speak, honestly, freely and openly – details that seem small or inconsequential to your case may actually change the whole situation!
Hiring the Best Long Beach Criminal Attorney Near Me
If you live in the Long Beach, California, region, talk with our Long Beach Criminal Lawyer today. Our team of attorneys and legal experts have years of experience defending against vehicular manslaughter. Plus, we know the judges and courts throughout the Southern California region, which can help us craft your perfect defense. We are ready to learn about your case, so call us today at 562-308-7807. Whether you were sober or intoxicated, acted with ordinary or gross negligence, or simply want to ensure the best defense, we are here. The sooner we can understand your case, the better we can build your strongest legal defense.