Have you been accused of vehicular manslaughter? You need an attorney who has what it takes to defend your freedom. Contact the Helfend Law Group today at 800-834-6434.

Under California Penal Code 192(c), vehicular manslaughter refers to causing another person’s death by driving a vehicle in an unlawful manner or negligently, without the intent to kill.

This lesser form of homicide is distinct from more severe charges such as murder. The degree of negligence involved, coupled with whether the driver was under the influence of alcohol or drugs, can lead to a number of different ways of charging for vehicular manslaughter.

Penalties can be steep, sometimes exceeding 10 years in California State Prison. As a result, if you or someone you know is facing vehicular manslaughter charges, it’s absolutely crucial to engage a law firm experienced in handling vehicular manslaughter cases.

Types of vehicular manslaughter in California

Vehicular manslaughter in California is charged according to the degree of negligence and the involvement of drugs or alcohol.

Gross negligence vehicular manslaughter

The more serious gross negligence vehicular manslaughter involves actions that show a reckless disregard for the safety of others, far exceeding mere carelessness or a mistake in judgment. This level of negligence is characterized by highly reckless conduct creating a substantial risk of death or serious injury, as compared to ordinary negligence, which includes lesser risks such as traffic infractions. For the prosecution to obtain a conviction, they must prove that the defendant acted far differently from a reasonably careful person in a similar situation, indicating a disregard for human life, which may lead to a charge of negligent vehicular manslaughter.

In California, if a violation of gross vehicular manslaughter does not involve DUI, it can be filed as a misdemeanor or felony, which is known as a ‘wobbler’. This designation allows flexibility in the prosecution of the offense. As a misdemeanor, the maximum penalty is one year in county jail, while as a felony, it can lead to imprisonment in state prison for two, four or six years.

Ordinary negligence vehicular manslaughter

On the other end of the negligence spectrum is ordinary negligence vehicular manslaughter. This is characterized by carelessness, inattentiveness or committing an error in judgment by not using reasonable care to prevent harm. Examples of ordinary negligence can include not checking for pedestrians at a crosswalk, speeding or changing lanes without signaling. To convict someone of vehicular manslaughter involving ordinary negligence, the prosecutor must prove that while the defendant was driving, they committed an act dangerous to human life under the circumstances, causing the death of another person, in a negligent or unlawful manner.

In California, ordinary negligence vehicular manslaughter, when not involving DUI, is classified as a misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in county jail.

Vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated

The third category is vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated. Defined under California Law, this offense occurs when a driver, under the influence of alcohol or drugs, commits an act of ordinary negligence that results in the unlawful killing of a human being. The severity of the charge is significantly influenced by the driver’s Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) levels, especially if the BAC is above the legal limits.

Gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated carries severe DUI penalties, including:

  • Up to ten years in prison
  • If the driver has two or more prior DUI convictions, the sentence can increase to 15 years to life in prison
  • Additional penalties if there are surviving victims who suffered great bodily injury.

Vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated involving ordinary negligence can lead to incarceration in county jail for up to one year or a state prison term of sixteen months, two years or three years.

What is the sentence for vehicular manslaughter in California?

The sentences for vehicular manslaughter in California can vary widely, influenced by factors such as:

  • The level of negligence
  • Whether the charge is a misdemeanor or a felony
  • Prior convictions
  • Alcohol or drugs

Each of these factors can significantly impact the severity of the penalties, which makes understanding these factors crucial when faced with vehicular manslaughter charges.

Misdemeanor vs felony charges

In California, vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence can be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on the specifics of the case. Misdemeanor charges for vehicular manslaughter carry penalties of up to one year in county jail and/or a fine of up to one thousand dollars ($1,000). On the other hand, felony charges can lead to imprisonment of two, four or six years in a California state prison, and/or a fine of up to ten thousand dollars ($10,000).

If someone is convicted of felony vehicular manslaughter, they might also lose their right to own a gun.

Impact of prior convictions

Prior convictions play a significant role in determining the severity of penalties in vehicular manslaughter cases. A prior vehicular manslaughter conviction or DUI increases the severity of penalties if the individual is later convicted of gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated. Subsequent convictions can lead to significantly enhanced penalties, which could be a prison sentence of 15 years to life.

DUI involvement

Driving under the influence (DUI) of alcohol or drugs can result in DUI vehicular manslaughter if the intoxicated driving leads to the death of another person. The severity of vehicular manslaughter charges can be significantly affected by the driver’s Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) levels, especially if the BAC is above the legal limits.

In cases of gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, the penalties can include four, six, or ten years in state prison, reflecting the severe nature of gross negligence.

Defending against vehicular manslaughter charges

One of the most common defense strategies in vehicular manslaughter cases is challenging the prosecution’s evidence. This can involve:

  • Questioning the validity or reliability of blood alcohol content tests
  • Questioning the accuracy of witness testimonies
  • Utilizing evidence such as dashcam or traffic camera footage to identify inconsistencies or gaps in the prosecution’s case

These strategies can potentially undermine the claims of negligence made by the prosecution.

Experienced defense attorneys will meticulously assess all presented evidence, question key witnesses, and aim to convince prosecutors to reduce or drop charges against the defendant.

Proving lack of negligence

Another key defense strategy involves proving a lack of negligence on the part of the accused. This requires showing that the driving behavior did not deviate significantly from what a reasonable person would do. For instance, defense strategies may involve showing that the defendant’s behavior was reasonable and appropriate in response to an unforeseen emergency, countering claims of negligence.

Defense may also assert that the defendant’s actions were due to a temporary error in judgment, which does not equate to legal negligence, especially in fast-paced situations requiring immediate decisions or when performing a lawful act as opposed to an unlawful act.

Disputing causation

The final key defense strategy is disputing the causation of the accident. In other words, the defense aims to prove that other factors contributed to the victim’s death, breaking the direct link to the defendant’s actions. The defense may argue that external factors, including but not limited to the actions of other drivers or the lack of vehicle safety features, were contributing causes to the victim’s death.

A variety of evidence such as:

  • Eyewitness accounts
  • Medical records
  • Video surveillance
  • Police reports

Can be used by the defense to build a case disputing that the defendant’s actions were the direct cause of the victim’s death.

Facing vehicular manslaughter charges can be daunting, and the complexity of the law makes it crucial to have experienced legal help on your side. The Helfend Law Group, led by attorney Robert M. Helfend, offers just that. With over 30 years of experience and a successful defense record in over 4,000 criminal cases, Mr. Helfend has the expertise to provide a significant advantage in vehicular manslaughter cases.

Mr. Helfend’s professional accolades include being named a Top 100 Trial Lawyer by the National Trial Lawyers Association, a Lead Counsel Rated Attorney, a Super Lawyers Rated Attorney and more. An experienced attorney like Robert M. Helfend not only assists the accused in legal proceedings but also helps alleviate stress for their families.

So, if you or a loved one are facing vehicular manslaughter charges, don’t hesitate to contact Robert M. Helfend at 800-834-6434 for a free case review.

Published March 22, 2024.