Vehicular manslaughter, a form of homicide, relates exclusively to motorist-related deaths. PC 192(c) defines vehicular manslaughter as the negligent operation of a motor vehicle or otherwise lawful conduct that is likely to result in someone else’s death or unlawful conduct resulting in another individual's death.

The state is particularly invested in vehicular manslaughter. Their aggressive approach to ensure convictions through the District Attorney is the state’s response to the growing need to reduce road fatalities. A conviction will result in hefty penalties, as detailed below. You need an equally aggressive defense attorney who will fight these charges. Turn to the Los Angeles Criminal Attorney for assistance if you or a loved one faces vehicular manslaughter charges.

Vehicular Manslaughter Under California Law

Vehicular manslaughter is one form of homicide under Penal Code 192. Unlike voluntary and involuntary manslaughter, vehicular manslaughter is specific to vehicle-related killings.

Penal Code 192(c) outlines the various aspects of vehicular manslaughter. A general overview of the elements prosecutors must establish to prove your guilt includes the following:

  • You committed an infraction, a misdemeanor, or an otherwise legal act in an unlawful manner,
  • The infraction, misdemeanor, or otherwise legal act posed a danger to human life, given the circumstances that occasioned the death of another,
  • You engaged in the infraction, misdemeanor, or legal act with ordinary or gross negligence, and
  • Your actions resulted in another individual’s death.

However, vehicular manslaughter charges are specific. Therefore, the prosecution must establish particular elements based on the charges.

     a) Vehicular Manslaughter With Gross Negligence

PC 192(c)(1) deals with vehicular manslaughter involving gross negligence. You are guilty of a PC 192(c)(1) violation if:

  • While driving a car, you committed an infraction, misdemeanor, or a lawful act likely to cause death
  • Your actions posed a danger to human life, given the circumstances
  • You acted with gross negligence
  • Your conduct caused another person’s demise

Infraction, Misdemeanor, or Lawful Acts Lilley to Cause Death

Actions of particular interest in a vehicular manslaughter case are violations other than felonies. The commission of a felony that results in another’s death will likely result in murder charges under the felony murder rule provided for under Senate Bill 1437. 

Actions that pose a risk of death when undertaken but are not crimes are also considered.

For example, using a hands-free device is legal. Even while using a hands-free device, engaging in a call is a form of distracted driving that increases the likelihood of an accident that could kill someone else.

Gross Negligence

Let us first distinguish intentional from negligent conduct.

An individual acts intentionally when there is deliberateness in his/her actions to cause physical harm or death. It can also be described as acting without regard to human life. For example, someone driving into a crowd to kill or seriously injure another.

Accidental conduct, on the other hand, can cause death. However, it does not rise to the level of deliberateness. These acts are considered negligence.

Negligence can be ordinary or gross. Ordinary negligence is evident if an individual is careless, inattentive, or commits an error in judgment. Gross negligence, on the other hand, is more serious. Gross negligence has an element of recklessness that an individual would reasonably conclude is likely to result in the demise of another individual.

Prosecutors must prove you acted with gross negligence to be found guilty under PC 192(c)(1). He/she must demonstrate the following:

  • You acted in a reckless manner likely to create a significant risk of great bodily harm or death, and
  • A reasonable individual would have concluded that similar behavior would have caused the risk

Causing the Demise of Another Individual

You are only guilty of an offense under PC 192(c)(1) if your actions cause another’s death. Death must be a direct, natural, and probable outcome of your actions.

Courts uphold the reasonable standard to prove this element: An ordinary person should reasonably conclude that the death was foreseeable given the defendant’s actions.

     b) Misdemeanor Vehicular Manslaughter

Misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter is defined in PC 192(c)(2). The elements in this section are:

  • You committed an infraction, misdemeanor, or a lawful act in an illegal way while driving your vehicle
  • Your actions were dangerous to human life, given the circumstances
  • Your conduct caused the demise of another person

PC 192(c)(2) requires ordinary negligence for a conviction, not gross negligence. Ordinary negligence means you failed to take reasonable precautions to avoid causing foreseeable harm to another person.

     c) Vehicular Manslaughter for Financial Gain

There are instances where individuals intentionally wreck vehicles and file a claim. This action amounts to insurance fraud. If the defendant kills someone unintentionally while committing auto insurance fraud, he/she is criminally liable under PC 192(c)(3).

If accused of vehicular manslaughter for financial gain, this section requires the prosecution to prove the following:

  • While driving, you purposefully caused or participated in a crash
  • You caused or participated in the collision aiming to make a false insurance claim for monetary gain
  • You intended to defraud another party or the insurance company
  • The collision resulted in another’s death

If you intentionally killed another individual while committing auto insurance fraud, prosecutors could pursue murder charges.

Note: While a significant portion of vehicular manslaughter cases involves victims who were pedestrians or other motorists, you can also face charges under PC 192(c) if your passenger dies at the time of the crash.

Penalties Upon Conviction for Vehicular Manslaughter

Penalties for vehicular manslaughter vary depending on the offense you are found guilty of committing.

     a) Vehicular Manslaughter With Gross Negligence

A conviction under PC 192(c)(1) results in felony or misdemeanor penalties. The D.A. will decide whether to pursue misdemeanor or felony charges depending on the circumstances of your case and your criminal history.

Convictions on misdemeanor charges are punishable by the following:

  • A jail sentence not exceeding one year, or
  • A maximum fine of $1,000 or both
  • Summary or misdemeanor probation instead of jail time

If you are charged with and subsequently convicted of a felony, you will face the following penalties:

  • A prison sentence of two, four, or six years, or
  • A maximum fine of $10,000 or both
  • Formal or felony probation instead of time in prison

     b) Misdemeanor Vehicular Manslaughter

If charged under PC 192(c)(2), you will face the following consequences upon conviction.

  • A jail sentence not exceeding one year, or
  • A maximum fine of $1,000 or both
  • Summary probation instead of jail time

     c) Vehicular Manslaughter for Financial Gain

Violations of PC 192(c)(3) are felonies punishable by the following penalties upon conviction:

  • A prison sentence of two, four, or six years, or
  • A maximum fine of $10,000 or both
  • Formal or felony probation instead of time in prison

Driver’s License Revocation

Upon being charged with vehicular manslaughter, the DMV will suspend your driver’s license.

The DMV’s decision is independent of the court proceedings and is based on the circumstances of your case and prior traffic offenses on your record. According to Vehicle Code 13351(a), if a defendant is convicted under PC 192(c)(1) or PC 192(c)(3), the DMV will immediately revoke his/her driving privileges.

You can request the DMV to reinstate your license after at least three years following the revocation.

Should you drive with a revoked license, you will face additional charges under Vehicle Code 14601.1(a). Violations of Vehicle Code 14601.1(a) are misdemeanors punishable by a jail sentence of up to six months and a maximum fine of $1,000 or both.

Fighting Vehicular Manslaughter Charges

Penalties for PC 192(c) violations are severe. If the courts do not dismiss your charges, they could reduce your penalties with a proper defense.

Aggressively seeking convictions on all vehicular manslaughter charges is unfair since some are entirely an accident. Your criminal defense attorney will use the following defenses to fight the charges and secure the best legal outcome.

The Victim Did Not Die Because of Your Negligence

The primary assumption is that the death of another individual after an accident is attributable to the defendant's negligence. Prosecutors must present evidence showing that the victim’s death was a direct, natural, or probable result of the defendant’s negligent actions.

Experienced attorneys rely on testimonies from expert witnesses like accident reconstruction experts. An accident reconstruction expert testifies whether your negligence caused the accident and whether the injuries the victim sustained that led to his/her death were likely a result of your actions.

Your Actions Lacked Gross Negligence

Negligence should pass the reasonable standard test. In theory, it sounds objective. However, in practice, it is subjective. Every individual’s response to a situation, given the same circumstances, is different, even if they are reasonable. Our reflexes and on-the-spot decisions vary. Even if the choices are wrong, the prosecution has to prove they are so bad that they prove negligence.

If prosecutors charge you under PC 192(c)(2) with gross negligence, your attorney will argue that your actions were a case of ordinary negligence. That is, you erred in your judgment or were careless and did not act with disregard for human life, as alleged by the prosecution. This strategy aims to have the penalties reduced.

You Faced an Immediate Emergency and Acted Reasonably, Given the Circumstances

If the defendant faced an emergency, the courts would rely on the actions a reasonable individual would have taken in the same situation to evaluate the defendant’s actions. This approach is helpful in cases where cases are misconstrued as involving gross negligence.

For example, Cooper was driving on a single-lane road at night. Suddenly, a man ran across the road, and Cooper swerved into oncoming traffic to avoid hitting him. Unfortunately, he hit a motorcyclist, who died instantly.

Cooper did not act negligently. His immediate decision to swerve to avoid hitting the pedestrian does not meet the negligent threshold, regardless of how unfortunate his decision was. In Cooper's case, it was purely an accident.

Offenses Related to Vehicular Manslaughter

Prosecutors can add the following crimes to your charge sheet, depending on what they can prove. They can also opt to pursue the crimes instead of vehicular manslaughter,

  • Gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated
  • Vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated
  • DUI Watson murder
  • Murder

     a) Gross Vehicular Manslaughter While Intoxicated

An individual commits gross vehicular manslaughter when he/she drives while under the influence of drugs, alcohol, or both and, with gross negligence, causes a crash that kills someone else. This action will result in prosecution under PC 191.5(a).

Prosecutors must prove the following:

  • You drove while impaired because of alcohol, drugs, or both
  • You committed an infraction, misdemeanor, or otherwise lawful act likely to cause death
  • You executed the infraction, misdemeanor, or otherwise legal act with gross negligence.

DUI of alcohol, drugs, or both means either:

  • You violated Vehicle Code 23152(a), which makes it a crime to drive after consuming an alcoholic beverage. Prosecutors will charge you under VC 23152(a) for showing symptoms of intoxication even if your blood alcohol level is below 0.08%,
  • You drove a vehicle with a blood alcohol level (BAC) of 0.08% or higher, which is a violation of VC 23152(b),
  • You drove with a BAC level of 0.05% or higher while under 21 years old, thus violating VC 23140, or
  • You drove under the influence of drugs or a mixture of drugs and alcohol.

Penalties for a PC 191.5(a) Violation

Penal Code 191.5(a) violations are felony offenses. A conviction results in:

  • A prison sentence of four, six, or ten years,
  • A fine not exceeding $10,000, or both
  • Felony probation as an alternative to prison time

If you have any priors on your record for the following offenses, the penalties increase to 15 years to life.

  • Vehicular manslaughter when operating a boat — In particular, PC 192.5(a) or (b)
  • Vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated — A violation of PC 191.5
  • Vehicular manslaughter under PC 192(c)
  • A DUI, a crime under VC 23152
  • DUI causing injury, a violation of VC 23153

     b) Vehicular Manslaughter While Intoxicated

Driving while intoxicated and killing somebody violates Penal Code 191.5(b).

PC 191.5(b) describes the crime as the illegal killing of another individual while driving under the influence and engaging in a negligent act likely to result in another’s death.

Vehicular manslaughter is also referred to as DUI manslaughter or vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated with ordinary negligence.

Prosecutors must prove:

  • You drove while drunk or after consuming drugs or both
  • You committed an infraction, misdemeanor, or a lawful act with a significant potential to cause death
  • You engaged in the infraction, misdemeanor, or legal act with ordinary negligence, and
  • The negligent actions caused the death of another individual

Punishments for DUI Manslaughter

You can face misdemeanor or felony charges under PC 191.5(b).

Misdemeanor convictions result in:

  • A jail sentence of up to one year,
  • A maximum fine of $1,000 or both
  • Summary probation

Felony convictions, on the other hand, are punishable by:

  • Up to four years in prison
  • A maximum fine of $10,000 or both

     c) Watson Murder

If you have faced charges for a DUI offense in the past in California that resulted in another’s death while driving inebriated or after consuming drugs, you will be charged with a second-degree murder charge. The crime is referred to as the Watson murder and is prosecuted as a second-degree murder charge under PC 187.

Under Watson murder charges, it is assumed the defendant acted with implied malice or malice aforethought, meaning:

  • He/she intentionally drove under the influence
  • The act’s natural and likely consequence was a risk to human life
  • When he/she committed the DUI, the defendant knew his/her actions posed a danger to human life
  • The defendant acted deliberately with conscious disregard for human life

Driving under the influence escalates to DUI murder if a defendant was previously convicted of a DUI offense and a judge read a Watson admonition to him/her, or he/she signed the warning.

A Watson admonition is a warning issued to individuals convicted of a DUI offense that driving under the influence is hazardous and that a subsequent conviction could result in murder charges if an individual dies in a crash involving the defendant.

Penalties for Watson Murder

Individuals convicted of DUI murder face the following penalties:

  • A prison sentence of up to 15 years to life
  • A maximum fine of $10,0000, and
  • A strike on their record, according to California's Three Strikes Law

     d ) Murder

Besides pursuing felony murder, prosecutors could opt to pursue murder charges against you.

Penal Code 187 makes it a crime to kill another individual with malice aforethought unlawfully. You can either face first-degree or second-degree murder charges.

Unlike manslaughter, murder requires malice aforethought for the jury to find the defendant guilty of the offense.

Malice aforethought refers to an individual’s disregard for human life when the individual engages in an activity with a high possibility of resulting in someone else's death. Both first-degree and second-degree murder cases require malice.

Malice can be either express or implied. Under express malice,

  • The killing was from an intentional conduct
  • The conduct’s natural consequence was dangerous to human life
  • The perpetrator had the awareness that the act posed a significant risk to human life and acted with conscious disregard for human life.

Implied malice is evident in the defendant’s actions, which display a depraved indifference to human life.

First-degree murder charges require deliberateness and premeditation.

For example, an individual lying in wait before striking and killing the victim. Should the prosecution fail to prove premeditation, they will resort to second-degree murder charges.

In second-degree murder, the perpetrator is willful in his/her actions but is not deliberate.

The choice of charges the prosecution will pursue depends on the facts they can prove.

Capital Murder

Penal Code 190.2 identifies capital murder as murder with exceptional circumstances. Under the statute, this crime occurs in 20 different situations, which include:

  • Killing in furtherance of gang-related activity
  • Killing a protected individual, including members of the court, police officers, firefighters, or EMTs discharging their duty
  • Killing for financial gain
  • Killing because of the victim’s color, race, religion, country of origin, or nationality
  • Killing a witness to prevent him/her from testifying

Felony Murder

Felony murder is either in the first or second degree.

Prosecutors would pursue a conviction for felony murder in the first degree if the death resulted from a defendant committing kidnapping, burglary, mayhem, carjacking, robbery, train wrecking, or other crimes classified as felony murder. Any other death following the commission of a felony that does not meet the first-degree threshold falls into the second-degree category.

Penalties for Murder

Individuals convicted of first-degree murder face sentences ranging from 25 years to life. If it were a hate crime, the defendant would face life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Capital murder is punishable by the death penalty. However, a temporary moratorium by Governor Gavin Newsom on executions changed the penalty to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

If convicted on second-degree murder charges, a conviction results in 15 years to life in prison.

You could also face additional penalties that include,

  • Victim restitution
  • A maximum fine of $10,000
  • Loss of gun rights

Find a Criminal Defense Attorney Near Me

Vehicular manslaughter is a serious charge. It is evident from the information above that a conviction is consequential. Early intervention is critical. That is why you should contact an experienced criminal defense attorney immediately.

The Los Angeles Criminal Attorney team is ready to offer legal assistance. Through prefiling interventions, we can negotiate with the D.A.’s office to avoid formal charges in court. The negotiations could yield a plea bargain agreement, which means pleading guilty to lesser charges. The talks could also lead to a dismissal of the charges. Should the case proceed to trial, we will develop a winning strategy to fight the charges.

Contact our team today at 424-333-0943 for a free case assessment.