Everything You Need to Know About Vehicular Manslaughter

What is vehicular manslaughter? Hopefully, something you’ll never have to experience for yourself. The number of deaths per year on American roads now stands at over 40,000, so it is important to understand the legal implications of a traffic collision.

Defining Vehicular Manslaughter 

Any driver who unintentionally causes an accident that results in the death of a pedestrian, passenger, or someone in another car, could find themselves charged with vehicular manslaughter. This is also known as vehicular homicide. These charges are often brought when the driver was operating their vehicle recklessly, carelessly, under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or in an otherwise illegal manner. Each state has its own specific definition of vehicular manslaughter. 

This charge is a relatively new addition to the category of homicide offenses. Before vehicular manslaughter existed, drivers could receive a standard manslaughter charge, i.e. the charge of unintentionally killing someone as a result of recklessness or negligence. Juries had a hard time deciding on a manslaughter charge in the case of a car accident. The introduction of the vehicular manslaughter category helped to address this by offering lesser penalties than the manslaughter charge. 

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Conditions Leading to Manslaughter Charges 

What kind of driving will typically result in a vehicular manslaughter charge? The answer to this question varies from state to state. However, the following situations will usually carry a vehicular manslaughter charge.

Driving While Intoxicated 

Proving that a driver was under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time of the accident is one way to demonstrate reckless driving. Self-incriminating statements, eyewitness testimony, and chemical evidence like breath, blood, or urine tests can prove intoxication. Many states require prosecutors to show that the driving was actively careless, and proof of intoxication alone might not be enough to convict. 

Drivers who have blood alcohol levels of 0.08 or higher are driving under the influence. Some states have different standards for different driver classes, for example commercial vehicles or young drivers. 

Drivers under the influence of prescribed drugs could also receive a vehicular manslaughter charge if their driving causes a death. For example, if a driver takes medication and drives after their doctor warns them about the side effects, and the medication container has obvious and clear warnings not to drive while taking it. This may be enough to show that the driver acted negligently or recklessly. 

Driving While Tired

Many accidents happen when a driver is very drowsy, or when they’ve fallen asleep. When someone dies as a result of this, the driver will not automatically face charges of vehicular manslaughter. The question is whether or not the driver in question acted recklessly or negligently while behind the wheel. 

For example, charging someone with manslaughter may be appropriate when someone stays up for 36 hours straight and then decides to drive. resulting in a fatal accident. The driver is aware of their reduced capacity, and still opts to get behind the wheel.  

Negligent Driving

Negligent or careless driving resulting in death is usually enough to result in a vehicular manslaughter charge. Traditional negligent driving involves driving in a way that lacks the care and consideration usually considered a minimum standard on the road.

For example, a driver who reaches into the car’s console and removes their eyes from the road while they drive will be considered negligent. They may receive a vehicular manslaughter charge if this inattention results in fatal accident. 

Reckless Disregard for Safety, Criminal Negligence, or Culpable or Gross Negligence 

In some states, drivers must be found guilty of other crimes along with negligence before they are considered for a vehicular homicide charge. This where factors such as gross, criminal, or culpable negligence, and reckless disregard for public safety, are factored into the process.

How does this work in practice? Well, if you broke the speed limit, had a higher than legal blood alcohol level, and you didn’t stop at a traffic signal, these elements would be added together cumulatively, resulting in a far greater penalty than that of standard negligent or careless driving. 

Violating Safety Statutes 

You can also receive vehicular manslaughter charges when an accident happens after you break a safety statute. Many states require that you have a clear windshield when driving, for example. If someone dies because you can’t see through your windshield, the state could charge you with vehicular manslaughter. Passing another vehicle in a no-passing zone, driving faster than the passing speed limit, and making illegal U-turns, are other examples of violations. 

Different states also single out specific violations that may not necessarily be safety violations. If someone dies as a result of this, your state could charge you with vehicular manslaughter. In Iowa, for example, any driver who chooses to pass a stopped school bus and causes an accident resulting in death automatically commits a felony. Deaths as a result of other types of reckless driving, that don’t involve driving under the influence, are misdemeanors. Some other states consider causing a death while eluding police to be a felony. 

Punishments for the Other Driver

It’s common for both drivers to be charged following a car accident. Maybe both cars were driving too fast, for example, and therefore both drivers are in the wrong. Damages and blame can be sorted out in a civil court, and blame is usually assigned using the contributory negligence theory. I.e. whichever driver the judge finds more responsible for the accident will collect less in damages, or will pay more in compensation. 

It’s rare for contributory negligence to play a part in a vehicular manslaughter case. Let’s imagine that a road traffic collision victim has a blood alcohol level above the legal limit, but the defendant was street racing on the wrong side of the road at the time. In this case, the judge might not allow the jury to hear about the victim’s blood alcohol content. 

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Can a Court Charge a Non-Driver with Vehicular Manslaughter?

In the vast majority of vehicular manslaughter charges, the defendant is the one who was allegedly driving. In some cases, however, the prosecutor can try to charge a person with vehicular manslaughter even though there is a dispute whether or not the defendant was driving. 

One case of this nature received national attention because the defendant wasn’t actually the driver of the vehicle. The person was a pedestrian, Raquel Nelson, who received a charge of second-degree vehicular homicide after her four-year-old son was struck and killed as they prepared to cross a highway in Georgia in 2010. 

Officials determined that the child’s death was a direct cause of Raquel Nelson’s attempt to cross the highway with her child in unsafe conditions. Along with the second-degree vehicular homicide charge, she also received a pedestrian crossing violation charge. The actual driver of the vehicle that struck the child was charged with first-degree vehicular homicide, after it was determined that they were driving under the influence of alcohol at the time of the accident. 

The state of Georgia classifies second-degree vehicular homicide as a misdemeanor. The definition of this charge is “to cause an unintentional death by violating any state traffic law”. This excludes traffic laws pertaining to reckless driving, DWI, DUI, driver duties involved in an accident that results in a serious injury or death, driver duties when approaching a stopped school bus, or eluding a police officer. The traffic law violation must be considered the legal cause of death. 

In Raquel Nelson’s case, her charge came based on the traffic law that states a pedestrian must yield to oncoming traffic if not at a crosswalk. The exception is when a pedestrian, under safe circumstances, has already started crossing the roadway. She violated this provision by stepping onto the highway with her children when conditions weren’t safe. This resulted in her child’s death. 

She pleaded not guilty to the charges, and the case went to trial. A judge found her guilty on both charges. She received 12 months of probation and 40 hours of community service. The judge also granted Nelson the choice of having a new trial or serving her sentence. 

She chose to have a new trial, but she then filed a motion to block the retrial. She argued that there was insufficient evidence to support the conviction at the first trial and a retrial would fall under double jeopardy. The judge denied this motion, and Raquel Nelson appealed to Georgia’s Court of Appeals. 

The Court of Appeals stated that Raquel Nelson’s case was the first in Georgia’s history in which a pedestrian received a second-degree vehicular homicide charge after a victim in their charge was killed attempting to cross a road in an unsafe way. 

The Court found that the Georgia courts had previously ruled that any non-driver could receive such a charge as a party to a traffic violation. They cited a 2003 Georgia Court of Appeals case when the Court upheld a conviction of first-degree vehicular homicide in the case of a defendant who gave alcohol to a teenage driver. The teenager then crashed the car and killed two passengers. 

The Court of Appeals ruled that there was sufficient evidence to support the conviction even though Raquel wasn’t driving a vehicle. So, having a retrial was did not fall under double jeopardy. Facing a second trial with the same charges, she chose a no-contest plea to the jaywalking offense and agreed to pay a $200 fine if the court dismissed the pedestrian crossing and vehicular homicide charges. 

Sentencing and Penalties

Several states operate different degrees of vehicular manslaughter when sentencing. Certain states authorize bigger punishments for convictions of drivers under the influence, for example.

In Georgia, any driver who causes a death while they’re intoxicated can receive a charge of first-degree vehicular homicide. This is a felony that can bring a sentence of 15 years in prison. A driver who commits a moving traffic offense and causes a death is guilty of committing second-degree vehicular homicide. This carries a maximum sentence of a year in jail, and is classed as a misdemeanor. 

Vehicular manslaughter penalties vary from state to state. In Alabama, a person who gets a vehicular manslaughter conviction based after driving under the influence can be sentenced to a maximum of five years in prison. On the other hand, a person in Minnesota who commits the same offense can get up to 30 years of prison time. 

Vehicular Manslaughter – Possible Defenses 

There are several common defense strategies for vehicular manslaughter cases. One strategy is lobbying for the exclusion of incriminating evidence. This could be test results that show the person was driving with a blood-alcohol level over the legal limit. An attorney could argue that the court shouldn’t allow evidence like this because law enforcement officers failed to follow procedures, or they obtained the results in a way that is a violation of the person’s rights. 

A person could also argue that being intoxicated wasn’t the legal cause of a death in an accident, and that the event was outside the defendant’s scope of control.

In Washington, a person can be acquitted of vehicular manslaughter if a judge or jury finds out that an outside act caused the person’s death. A person could show evidence that the reckless driving was not due to drugs or alcohol, but due to a medical emergency or condition instead. 

However, if a person chooses to drive in spite of their known medical condition, they can still receive a vehicular homicide charge if the courts determine that choosing to drive was reckless or negligent. 

What To Do If You Have Questions, or If You are Facing Charges?

If you’re facing vehicular manslaughter charges, the first thing to do is get an attorney. An attorney can help you form a plan on how to take your case to court and defend against it. If you need representation, reach out and contact us. Our talented staff members are ready to answer your questions or set up your initial consultation. We’ll help you get the best outcome possible for your situation.