Vehicular homicide, detailed under California Penal Code section 192c (PC), is one of the most serious driving offenses a person can be charged with. It occurs when someone dies because another person was driving in negligently or unlawfully. You can even face vehicular manslaughter charges if you caused a fatal car accident while speeding. If you have been accused of this crime, call a skilled San Diego vehicular manslaughter attorney as soon as possible.
Is Vehicular Manslaughter a Felony or Misdemeanor?
Vehicular manslaughter may be charged as a misdemeanor or a felony depending on a number of factors, particularly how the accident occurred, whether you were intoxicated, your driving record, and your criminal history. You can face one charge of vehicular manslaughter for each person who died. If anyone survived the accident, you will also be charged with reckless driving with injury for each injured survivor. You could also face hit and run charges if you fled the accident scene. All in all, you can easily end up facing a lengthy sentence, even for just one incident.
You will only be charged with a misdemeanor if you have a clean criminal and DMV record and drove with ordinary negligence. Ordinary negligence involves committing a misdemeanor or infraction or unlawfully performing a lawful act. Examples include:
- Texting while driving
- Failing to look both ways before making a turn
Causing someone’s death while operating a vehicle with gross negligence can result in either misdemeanor or felony charges. Gross negligence is an activity that goes beyond carelessness or inattentiveness, where a reasonable person would recognize that the behavior would create a high risk of death or great bodily injury. Examples include:
- Street racing
- Going the wrong way on a freeway
- Driving on the sidewalk
- Operating a vehicle while high or drunk
If you have any DUIs on your record, chances are that the prosecution will choose to charge you with a felony. If you had a prior DUI and then are accused of manslaughter caused by drunk driving, the charge will be elevated to murder, commonly called a “Watson murder.” The reasoning behind this enhanced charge is that you should have learned from your prior DUI course education how dangerous it is to drink and drive. Similarly, if the negligent or unlawful driving behavior was a felony rather than a misdemeanor or infraction, the prosecutors could file murder charges under the California felony murder rule.
When the accident was caused purposefully for insurance fraud, the charges are always a felony.
California Vehicular Manslaughter Sentencing
As a misdemeanor, vehicular manslaughter is punishable by up to one year in county jail. When gross negligence vehicular manslaughter charges are filed as a felony, the penalty can be as high as 6 years in prison. If vehicular manslaughter happens as part of an insurance fraud scheme, the sentence can be as high as 10 years in a California state prison, and prosecutors may even file murder charges. Similarly, gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated carries a sentence of up to 10 years in prison.
Manslaughter of all kinds is considered a serious felony, which means any felony-level vehicular manslaughter charges count as a strike under the state’s Three Strikes Law. Anyone convicted of this law that has a prior strike on their record will have their sentence will be doubled, and if they have two prior strikes, they can face life imprisonment.
Fighting the Charges
Having a top criminal defense attorney fighting on your behalf can significantly impact your future. Your lawyer can help determine the best course of action based on your circumstances. In some cases, this could mean negotiating a plea bargain to minimize the charges, making the crime a misdemeanor rather than a felony.
It is important to realize that just because someone died in an accident you were involved in does not mean you were responsible for their death. For example, if the person walked in front of your car right as you approached them, it was likely their own negligence that caused the accident. In many cases involving pedestrian deaths, the driver feels responsible, but it is not their fault. Even if you initially told the police the death was your responsibility, your lawyer may be able to find evidence that the other party caused the accident and that you only confessed because you felt guilty that someone passed away as a result of the crash.
Because these cases are so complex and the evidence involved with vehicular manslaughter cases can be so challenging to interpret, having the right criminal defense lawyer on your side can make a massive difference in the outcome of your case. He may be able to show that:
- you only drove with ordinary negligence, not gross negligence
- you were not driving negligently at all
- the accident was not your fault
- you were not actually driving a vehicle when the death occurred
- you were not intoxicated while driving
With the right evidence behind you, you may be able to have the charges against you dropped or reduced or arrange for you to receive a reduced sentence before the case even goes to court. If the case goes before a jury, having a skilled criminal defense attorney can mean the difference between an acquittal or a verdict of “guilty.”
If you have been in a car accident where someone was injured or killed, and you believe you may be charged with vehicular injury, vehicular manslaughter, or murder, please call Peter M. Liss at (760) 643-4050 or (858) 486-3024.