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.

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

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 February 1, 2020. Updated May 15, 2024.