Vehicular Manslaughter Sentences, Penalties & Laws in California

Car accidents are unfortunate, but real elements of life on the road. Throughout the time you spend driving, you’re bound to be involved in a few, but the hope is that no incident ever becomes something as serious as a case of vehicular manslaughter.

Car accidents can vary in terms of how much damage they cause. Some may lead to injuries and various symptoms, while others can have more tragic implications.

Though unpleasant to think about, it’s important to know those fatal car accidents take place in the United States at an alarming rate. Car insurance notes that over 40,000 fatal car accidents occur annually in the United States.

Not all of those are vehicular manslaughter cases, but they do contribute to the grim total.

With luck, you will never need to face up to the realities of a vehicular manslaughter case either as the loved one of a victim or the person behind the wheel. Even so, it is important to know what it entails for the different parties involved.

What Is Manslaughter?

Before taking a closer look at vehicular manslaughter, let’s take a moment to first properly define manslaughter itself.

Courtesy of the California Legislature; they define manslaughter as the “unlawful killing of a human being without malice.” That “without malice” part is often the defining characteristic of manslaughter cases.

Because they deem the unlawful killing to have taken place without malice, they don’t regard the act as murder.

An example of this would be an accidental killing. They may convict a doctor who administrates a drug without fully understanding that it could lead to the death of a patient of involuntary manslaughter.

In this scenario, there was no intention or malice on the part of the doctor, which is why they will regard the case as involuntary manslaughter.

To be clear, though, manslaughter cases may still feature intent on the part of the accused to cause harm to the victim. Voluntary manslaughter cases feature a perpetrator who did mean to cause fatal harm to the victim.

So, why is it still considered as voluntary manslaughter as opposed to being murder if there was intent involved? The answer is related to human emotions.

The reason why they regard many voluntary manslaughter cases as “crimes of passion” is because they are driven by emotion. Caught up in the heat of the moment, an individual may not rationalize his/her actions, and that may cause them to kill. In essence, the emotional factor mitigates how culpable the perpetrator is.

What Is Vehicular Manslaughter?

Vehicular manslaughter takes place when an individual driving a vehicle commits a traffic violation before unintentionally but directly causing the unlawful death of another person.

For instance, the driver involved in a car accident which, also led to the death of a pedestrian, or a fellow driver, can be accused of vehicular manslaughter. An important thing to note here is that there are different types of vehicular manslaughter cases.

They can classify vehicular manslaughter cases as misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter cases or felony vehicular manslaughter cases with gross negligence.

Let’s start first with misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter cases, which they refer to as ordinary manslaughter cases.

The main factor that distinguishes them from the other type is that they lack gross negligence on the part of the accused. They still involve negligence, but the irresponsible act may have stemmed from a lapse of judgment as opposed to a clear disregard of traffic laws.

For example, a driver who was otherwise proceeding carefully may have hit a pedestrian accidentally because they were suddenly distracted by a loud sound and could not stop in time. In that scenario, it would be hard to argue that the driver was overly negligent, but he/she should still have exercised caution to prevent the unfortunate incident from taking place.

In vehicular manslaughter cases with gross negligence, the accused has likely committed an unlawful act that played a role in the death of another person. An individual who was driving well over the speed limit, who is then unable to stop in time at a red light, thus leading their car to hit a pedestrian crossing the street may be accused of felony vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence.

Remember that gross negligence refers to when someone acts in such a way that they seemingly show a “reckless disregard for the safety or lives of others, which is so great it appears to be a conscious violation of other people’s rights to safety,” according to Cornell Law School.

Unless there was an emergency, there is no reason for any driver to be going way over the speed limit, especially given the dangers associated with that. Speeding, in that case, is the main reason why they consider it felony vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence.

Why Is It Important to Determine if It’s Misdemeanor Vehicular Manslaughter or Felony Vehicular Manslaughter?

They often describe vehicular manslaughter cases as wobblers. If you’re not familiar with that term, they use it to describe a case they can charge as a misdemeanor or a felony.

As noted above, the presence of gross negligence can help determine whether a case is ultimately regarded as a misdemeanor or as a felony, and that is hugely important. That’s mainly because the penalties differ depending on the case.

Comparatively speaking, the punishment given to an individual found guilty of a felony is significantly harsher than one handed down to someone who committed a misdemeanor. We’ll get into what those punishments are a bit later in this article.

For now, let’s get back to the types of vehicular manslaughter cases.

The Other Type of Vehicular Manslaughter

Thus far, we’ve discussed misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter as well as felony vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence. There is still one more type that I need to discuss in detail, and that is vehicular manslaughter for financial gain.

The name already hints at what this type of vehicular manslaughter case is. In some instances, individuals will intentionally cause a vehicular accident to cause the death of another person. A desire to obtain money was likely the motive for the act.

More specifically, the individual who caused the accident may have been seeking to file an auto insurance claim in the wake of the accident despite them perpetrating it in the first place.

Now, there is a key distinction between this type of vehicular manslaughter case and the ones detailed previously. If they find a defendant guilty of committing this type of vehicular manslaughter case, they can still try he/she for murder.

Prosecutors will no longer need to choose between those options as they pursue a case.

When Does a VM Case Turn into a Possible Murder Case?

Punishments handed out to murder suspects are harsher and longer than the ones given to those convicted of vehicular manslaughter. Loved ones and prosecutors seeking justice may want to pursue murder charges instead, so they will put the suspect in their case behind bars for as long as possible.

But how does a case of vehicular manslaughter turn into something they see as murder?

They can accuse drunk drivers of manslaughter if their irresponsible actions lead to the death of another person. It may seem unfair they could act so recklessly and still only be charged with manslaughter, but that is often the case.

The case can veer into the territory of murder if they find the suspect continued to act irresponsibly despite being reprimanded previously. Someone who has been convicted of drunk driving multiple times and who has caused damage to property and injuries to people in previous cases may no longer be tried just for manslaughter if he/she is involved in another incident that leads to the death of an individual.

In that example, the suspect displayed behavior that showed such blatant disregard for the wellbeing of others that they must hold them accountable to the extent of the law even if they never meant to kill someone.

How Do They Punish People Found Guilty?

The severity of the punishment handed down to individuals convicted of vehicular manslaughter varies. The type of vehicular manslaughter they committed impacts what kind of punishment they eventually receive.

Punishment for Misdemeanor Vehicular Manslaughter

They hand the lightest punishments down to those who are found guilty of misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter. Because the crime they committed is a misdemeanor, the maximum amount of time they can spend in county jail is about one year, although it’s not uncommon for the sentence to be shorter.

Furthermore, they may order individuals charged with that misdemeanor to pay a fine that can go up to $1,000.

They may also put them on informal or summary probation. Being placed on informal probation means they must meet certain conditions for a period that can last up to five years. Not meeting those conditions could put the person in jail.

To sum up the punishment for misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter:

  • Up to one year of county jail time
  • Possible fine of up to $1,000
  • Put on informal probation

Punishment for Felony Vehicular Manslaughter with Gross Negligence

If you end up convicted of felony vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence, you can expect to be on the receiving end of harsher penalties.

The period of incarceration you face will be significantly longer, and you will spend it in state prison instead of jail. On the low end, you will need to spend at least two years in jail, but that can extend to a six-year sentence.

The maximum fine they ask you to pay can also climb to $10,000.

They place convicted criminals on formal probation.

Formal probation shares a lot of similarities with information probation, but the former does require you to report frequently to an assigned probation officer. Also, even if you follow the terms of your formal probation well, it may only get downgraded to an informal probation instead of being terminated.

To sum up the punishment for felony vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence:

  • At least two years of state prison time
  • Possible fine of up to $10,000
  • Put on formal probation

Punishment for Vehicular Manslaughter Committed for Financial Gain

The punishment they give individuals who commit vehicular manslaughter for financial gain is similar to what they may provide to a person found guilty of felony vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence.

Instead of two years, though, the minimum amount of state prison time they serve will be four years.

Another big difference is they may convict them of murder.

To sum up the punishment for vehicular manslaughter, committed for financial gain:

  • At least four years of state prison time
  • Possible fine of up to $10,000
  • Put on formal probation
  • Additional punishment from a potential murder conviction

How Do You Fight the Charges?

The first line of defense you can use against vehicular manslaughter charges is to show that you were not negligent at all. An emergency may cause you to act differently from how you normally would on the road, and that may be enough to show the judge and jury that you were not necessarily negligent.

You can also attempt to show that your actions, even if they were negligent, were not necessarily the reasons why someone died.

If the charges levied against you suggest that you displayed gross negligence, you can try to disprove that as part of your defense.

Needless to say, you will have a tough time trying to prove your innocence or even the lack of gross negligence on your part in a felony vehicular manslaughter case. You will need great legal minds working on your behalf to formulate a defense strategy that will shine a light on what truly happened.

By contacting the lawyers at Quirk Law Group, you can significantly increase your chances of receiving a fair trial.

Any case involving the death of someone is tragic, but it is still your right to defend yourself if you truly did nothing wrong. Defend yourself properly by seeking the counsel of the Quirk Law Group.