If your driving results in someone else’s death and person’s death was caused by your own negligence, you could be charged with vehicular manslaughter.

These situations are always tragic, and they often include otherwise law-abiding, well meaning people who made a brief mistake while driving. These could be situations like a driver becoming distracted by a cell phone, someone speeding to make it to an appointment on time, or just failing to notice a pedestrian.

Vehicular manslaughter is punished very seriously under California law. Depending on the facts of the case, a vehicular manslaughter conviction could carry up to six years in prison.

If you or someone you love has been charged with vehicular manslaughter, it is important to speak with a criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. This is a tragic and unfortunate situation, and an attorney can help defend your rights in the criminal justice system.

What is vehicular manslaughter?

California law defines two types of vehicular manslaughter:

  1. Gross-negligence vehicular manslaughter
  2. Misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter

Vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence

In order to convict you of a crime, a prosecutor will have to convince a jury that certain facts of the case were true. These are known as the “elements of the crime.” Under California Penal Code 192(c)(1), vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence has four elements:

  1. While driving a vehicle, you committed a misdemeanor or infraction, or else committed a lawful act in a manner that might cause death. In other words, this law only applies if you were committing a misdemeanor at the time of the accident. If you were committing a felony, you could be charged with felony murder
  2. This act was dangerous to human life.
  3. You committed the act with gross negligence. Gross negligence means that you not only acted in a way that would result in death or great bodily injury, but also acted in such a way that no reasonable person would do what you did, because of the act’s disregard for human life.
  4. The act resulted in the death of another person. In order for vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence charges to stick, the prosecutor must show that the person’s death was a direct, natural and probable result of your actions.

For example, let’s say someone is engaged in street racing on an open road. Slightly down the road, a pedestrian is legally crossing the road at a crosswalk. The racing cars speed past the pedestrian, narrowly missing him. The pedestrian is startled by the encounter, and he has a heart attack and dies.

Because the street racer was not directly responsible for the pedestrian’s death, he or she likely would be found not guilty of vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence.

Misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter

Under California Penal Code 192(c)(2), misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter has the same four elements as vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence above, with one critical difference.

  • The act was committed with ordinary negligence. This means that the act occurred as a result of you failing to take reasonable care to prevent reasonably foreseeable harm to someone else.

For example, let’s say someone is making a right turn onto a busy street. In his effort to safely turn onto the street, the driver fails to see a pedestrian crossing into the crosswalk in front of him, and he hits and kills the pedestrian.

Because there was no gross negligence involved in this situation — simply the driver’s failure to exercise his obligation to notice and yield to pedestrians — this could be a case of misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter.

Penalties for vehicular manslaughter

Vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence is prosecuted as a “wobbler” under California law. This means that it can be a felony or misdemeanor, depending on the facts of the case and your criminal history.

As a felony, vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence is punishable by:

  • Felony (formal) probation
  • Up to 6 years in California State Prison
  • Fines of up to $10,000

All other cases of misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter carry these punishments:

  • Misdemeanor (summary) probation
  • Up to 1 year in county jail
  • Fines of up to $1,000

If you are convicted of either felony or misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter, the California DMV will revoke your driver’s license for a minimum of three years.

What is the difference between vehicular homicide and vehicular manslaughter?

Some states treat vehicular homicide and vehicular manslaughter as separate charges. In those states, vehicular homicide is a more serious charge than vehicular manslaughter, and it typically involves an act of recklessness or negligence that resulted in the death of another person.

In California, all cases of unlawful death involving a motor vehicle fall under vehicular manslaughter, and the severity of those charges is divided by gross-negligence vehicular manslaughter and misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter.

Defenses against vehicular manslaughter charges

“Robert Helfend is one of the best criminal defense attorneys I’ve ever worked with. He was so knowledgeable, and always made sure I understood everything every step of the way. I would definitely recommend him to anyone who wants an understanding, caring, and truly helpful lawyer.” Pat, CA

As we mentioned above, vehicular manslaughter cases can arise in tragic and unfortunate circumstances. Someone makes a simple, yet fatal, mistake, and it causes them to become entangled in the criminal justice system.

However, if you or someone you love has been charged with vehicular manslaughter, a skilled criminal defense attorney can help you navigate what is to come. Concepts like “gross negligence” and “direct, natural and probable” are nuanced, and an attorney can carefully comb through the facts of your case to get you the best possible outcome for your situation.

Robert M. Helfend is a SuperLawyers and National Trial Lawyers Top 100 rated attorney who has defended vehicular manslaughter cases in the Los Angeles area since 1984. Call today for your free case evaluation — 800-834-6434.