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What Is Vehicular Manslaughter?

Pursuant to California law, the Prosecutor must prove the following elements beyond a reasonable doubt in order to maintain a conviction against you for Vehicular manslaughter:

-    While driving the vehicle, you committed an unlawful act, which does not amount to felonious conduct, or a legal act in a sub-par manner;

-    Your conduct amounted to gross negligence, or in some cases, simple negligence; and

-    The result of your negligent, or grossly negligent conduct, while operating a vehicle, was the death of another person. 

While not essential to this article, California has what is known as the “felony murder rule.” Pursuant to this rule, any death that occurs as a proximate result of the commission of a felony will automatically be treated as a murder.

There are a few felonies that satisfy this rule: (1) Burglary, (2) Arson, (3) Rape, (4) Robbery; and (5) kidnapping. The rule applies to the completion of the crime, which would include the felon fleeing the scene of the crime. If you are being charged under felony murder, contact an attorney immediately, as the penalties are extremely severe. While there is a lot to say about the felony murder rule, that is not the focus of this article. This article is focusing on vehicular manslaughter, specifically in the DUI context.  

In line with the theme of this article, it should be noted, that if someone dies as he result of your operation of a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol or drugs, the may be facing criminal charges pursuant to California Penal Code §191.5, which specifically defines the crime of vehicular manslaughter while driving under the influence. 

What is the difference between “gross negligence” and regular “negligence”?

Whether the Prosecution charges you with vehicular manslaughter pursuant to California Penal Code §191.5, will depend on whether they believe your conduct amounts to what is called “gross negligence”, or if your conduct is simply “negligent.” While it will be discussed more fully below, “gross negligence” is conscious, willful disregard for the importance of using reasonable care in scenarios that will probably cause serious bodily injury to another person. On the other hand ordinary “negligence” is a generalized failure on an individual’s part to exercise the kind of care that a “reasonably prudent person” would exercise in a similar situation. Since the key component of a California Penal Code §191.5 charge involves driving under the influence, and gross negligence, it is important to identify more specifically what constitutes “gross negligence.”

Gross Negligence and Case Law

It is important to note that “gross negligence” cannot be found based solely on the fact that someone was driving under the influence , “gross negligence may still be inferred from the facts as it relates to the person’s intoxication itself . The Bennett case is illustrative of what constitutes “gross negligence.” In Bennett, the Defendant drank in excess, drove his truck excessively, crossed double lines, and ultimately went off the road, killing two of his passengers. The Court held that based on the facts surrounding the deaths of the passengers, a jury could find that Bennett had engaged in “grossly negligent” conduct. Subsequently, the law has been modified to clarify that “gross negligence” in a Penal Code §191.5 sense, can be inferred from the Defendant’s BAC, manner of driving, and other circumstances that resulted in the death of another person .  Ultimately, it is an objective test that is applied to determine whether someone acted with gross negligence, the key question is whether someone in their position would know of the risk associated with the conduct .

What are the penalties I may face if I am convicted of Vehicular manslaughter?

In the event that the Prosecution is able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that your conduct amount to gross negligence, as explained above, you will be charged with a violation of California Vehicle Code §192(c) (this is a distinct offense from §191.5). Vehicular manslaughter can be charged as a felony, or a misdemeanor, and is commonly referred to as a “wobbler offense” in California. The Prosecutor will make the determination of what form the charge should take based on the facts surrounding your case. If you are charged with a misdemeanor, you can face a maximum period of incarceration of up to one year. Alternatively, if you are charged with felony involuntary manslaughter, you may face up to 6 years in jail. The monetary penalty also varies based on the form of the charge: a misdemeanor is capped at $1,000 in fines while a felony is capped at $10,000. Additionally, if you are convicted, your license may be revoked by the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). If this happens you will not be able to reinstate your license for at least three years. 

If In the event that the Prosecutor can only prove that you acted with “ordinary” negligence, the charge must be brought as a misdemeanor, and you will face a maximum of one year of incarceration and a fine of up to 1,000. 

1 (People v. McNiece (1986) 181 C.A.3d 1048, 1054, 226 C.R. 733; People v. Von Staden (1987) 195 C.A.3d 1423, 1426, 241 C.R. 523)

2 (People v. Bennett (1991) 54 C.3d 1032, 1034, 2 C.R.2d 8, 819 P.2d 849).

3 People v. Ochoa (1993) 6 C.4th 1199, 1204, 26 C.R.2d 23, 864 P.2d 103 [applying Bennett; defendant, driving while intoxicated, wove in and out of traffic, passed three cars on a blind curve, exceeded the speed limit, and lost control of his car at bottom of hill], People v. Von Staden (1987) 195 C.A.3d 1423, 1426, 241 C.R. 523 [defendant drove while highly intoxicated (blood-alcohol level of.22%), ignored host's urging not to drive while intoxicated, and drove 30 miles per hour over speed limit on foggy night]; People v. Hansen (1992) 10 C.A.4th 1065, 1076, 12 C.R.2d 884 [citing Bennett; evidence that defendant had a blood alcohol level of.20% about 3 hours after accident, failed to heed passengers' repeated requests to slow down, failed to ensure that passengers used seat belts (Veh.C. 27315), and ignored passenger's express request for help in finding seat belt was sufficient for gross negligence

4 People v. Ochoa, supra, 6 C.4th 1205 [applying Bennett; evidence of defendant's prior conviction of driving under the influence, followed by probation, traffic school, and attendance at alcohol awareness program, was admissible to show whether reasonable person in defendant's position would have appreciated risks of drunk driving]; People v. Johnigan (2011) 196 C.A.4th 1084, 1094, 128 C.R.3d 190.

What happens if I am charged with, and convicted of, a violation of California Vehicle Code §191.5? 

If at the time you caused the death of another person while operating a vehicle, you were under the influence of alcohol or drugs, the consequences will also be determined based on whether or not you acted with gross negligence or ordinary negligence. As mentioned above, the Court cannot find that you acted with gross negligence based simply on the fact that you were over the legal limit, but it is a factor to consider. If you are found to have caused the death of another while driving under the influence, but without gross negligence, you will be sentenced by up to one year of incarceration if you are charged with a misdemeanor violation. If you are charged with a felony violation, you will face incarceration n ranging from 16 months, to 2, or 3 years. The penalty is determined by the Court, and is based on the circumstances of your case. 

If the Prosecution proves facts sufficient for a jury to make a finding of gross negligence, while under the influence, you may face a period of incarceration ranging from 4, 6, to 10 years. 

In the event that you have prior DUI convictions, you may face much more severe consequences as a result of the implied knowledge of the consequences that can accompany driving under the influence. These are known as the Watson admonitions, and can form the basis of a Watson murder charge. 

What are the Legal Defenses my Attorney can Raise on my behalf if I am charged with Vehicular Manslaughter?

In California, and every other state, vehicular manslaughter is a significant charge, and carries significant consequences. Additionally, many people feel truly responsible for the death of another person. It is important to have competent counsel so that you can put that experience behind you. Nobody wants to accidentally kill another person, but it becomes substantially worse when the Prosecutor attempts to make you morally blameworthy as well. The attorneys at Los Angeles DUI Attorney Law Firm have years of experience representing clients charged with all manners of crimes, and they will fight to show your innocence. Accidents happen, and sometimes accidents cause death; it does not mean that every time this happens, a crime has been committed. 

You did not act with negligence or gross negligence.

A key component of a charge of involuntary manslaughter pursuant to California Penal Code §192, or §191.5, is that the Defendant acted negligently, or with gross negligence. This is high burden for the Prosecutor to prove beyond a reasonable doubt; it is so subjective and difficult to define. A skilled attorney can present the facts to make clear that what you were doing was objectively reasonable in light of all the surrounding circumstances. For example, the Prosecutor may introduce that you were swerving across the highway, to convince the jury that you were driving in a negligent manner. However, that story would be quite different if your attorney introduced evidence that it was pouring at the time, someone slammed on their breaks causing you to swerve, and ultimate your car went out of control as a result of hydroplaning. There are two sides to every story, and your attorney from Los Angeles DUI Attorney Law Firm will present your story in the most effective manner possible. 

Contact our office today at 424-285-5400 for a FREE DUI consultation; we will begin building a strong defense for you immediately.