Vehicular Manslaughter: Sentencing, Laws and Penalties

Vehicular manslaughter charges may be brought when someone is killed in an auto accident--even against someone other than the driver.

By , Attorney · Georgia State University College of Law

What Is Vehicular Manslaughter?

Drivers who unintentionally cause accidents that result in the deaths of passengers, occupants of other cars, or pedestrians may find themselves charged with the crime of vehicular manslaughter (also known as vehicular homicide). Vehicular manslaughter charges are appropriate when the driver was under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or driving recklessly (or merely carelessly), or otherwise driving in an illegal manner—each state specifies the circumstances that will support charging this crime.

The crime of vehicular manslaughter is a relative newcomer to the list of homicide offenses. Before its appearance, these drivers were charged with manslaughter (unintentionally killing someone as a result of criminal negligence or recklessness). But juries were often reluctant to attach the onus of "manslaughter" to a traffic accident. "Vehicular manslaughter" addressed this reluctance by typically providing for lesser penalties than manslaughter itself.

Driving that Results in Vehicular Manslaughter Charges

In order to know whether a vehicular manslaughter charge is appropriate when a highway death results from an accident, you'll need to know exactly what kind of driving will trigger such a charge in your state. Here are the typical types of driving that state laws provide for.

Negligent Driving

In many states, ordinary negligence, or carelessness, on the part of the driver will support a vehicular manslaughter charge. Ordinary negligence is inattention, or driving that lacks the care and prudence that an ordinarily careful person would exercise under the circumstances. For example, a driver who only briefly takes his eyes off of the road while reaching into his car's console can still be charged with vehicular manslaughter if his inattention results in a fatal accident.

"Criminal Negligence," "Culpable or Gross Negligence," "Reckless Disregard of Others' Safety"

In other states, the type of driving necessary to support a charge of vehicular manslaughter must be more egregious than simple negligence, explained above. Criminal, culpable, or gross negligence; and reckless disregard of others' safety are common benchmarks. For example, someone who drove at high speed with a high blood alcohol level, failed to heed flashing red lights, traveled on the other side of the road, and failed to apply the brakes is someone whose driving was beyond careless or negligent.

Driving While Intoxicated

Showing that a driver was intoxicated or under the influence of alcohol or drugs is a common way that prosecutors prove negligent or (depending on the state) reckless behavior. Intoxication can be proved by eyewitness testimony, self-incriminating statements, and chemical evidence, including blood, breath, or urine tests. In most states, prosecutors must show that the driving itself was careless—in other words, mere proof of legal intoxication is insufficient. Florida, however, is a notable exception—in that state, the prosecutor need only show that the defendant's driving caused a death, and that the driver was intoxicated. (Fla. Stat. § 860.01.)

Defendants who have a blood alcohol level of 0.08 or higher are presumed to be driving under the influence (some states set lower thresholds for certain classes of drivers, such as underage drivers and drivers of commercial vehicles). But even if the reading is lower, prosecutors can meet the applicable negligence standard by providing evidence of the driving itself, in conjunction with the ingestion of drugs or alcohol.

Drivers who are under the influence of prescribed drugs may also be charged with vehicular manslaughter when their driving causes a highway death. Consider the driver who takes medicine after being warned by the doctor of its side effects, when the medicine container itself contained clear and obvious warnings not to drive, and when the driver had prior experience with the drug's effects—this driver has acted negligently at least, and possibly even recklessly.

Violating a Safety or Other Statute

Vehicular manslaughter can also be charged when accidents happen after drivers violate a safety statute. For instance, many states require windshields to be clear. When a death results from the driver's inability to see through an obscured windshield, a manslaughter charge may follow. Passing vehicles in violation of "no passing" signs, driving beyond the posted speed limit, and performing illegal U-turns are similar examples.

States also single out specific violations of law that are not necessarily safety violations, but involve important interests. When a death results, vehicular manslaughter charges might result. Under Iowa law, for example, a sober driver who causes a death while passing a stopped school bus commits a felony, while deaths caused by other types of reckless driving not involving DUI are punished as misdemeanors. Other states punish as felonies deaths caused by drivers attempting to elude police.

Driving While Sleepy or Falling Asleep

Many traffic accidents happen when drivers have fallen asleep at the wheel, or are extremely drowsy. But when someone dies as a result, the driver won't necessarily face vehicular manslaughter charges. The question is whether the driver acted negligently (or recklessly, depending on the state's standard) when getting behind the wheel in such a condition. For instance, a manslaughter charge might be appropriate when someone chooses to stay up all night, works all day, and attempts to drive home after being awake for more than 36 hours. Voluntarily putting oneself in a position so that one cannot stay awake, and then driving, is negligent behavior and possibly even recklessness.

What About the Other Driver?

It's very common for each driver involved in a car accident to share some of the responsibility—perhaps one car was going too fast, but the other car was, too. When blame and damages are sorted out in a civil context—who pays for what—courts often apportion the blame using the theory of "contributory negligence." In other words, when you're partially responsible, you collect less.

In a criminal context, however, contributory negligence is rarely applied in vehicular manslaughter cases. For example, suppose the victim driver had a blood alcohol level above the legal limit, but the defendant instigated a drag racing manoeuver that resulted in the victim's death. Most judges would not allow the jury to hear evidence about the deceased's blood alcohol level.

Can a non-driver be charged with vehicular manslaughter?

In almost cases involving a vehicular homicide charge, the defendant is alleged to have been driving. In some instances, however, a prosecutor may charge a defendant with vehicular homicide even though it is undisputed that the defendant was not driving the vehicle involved in the victim's death. A recent vehicular homicide case received national press coverage because the defendant was not the driver of the vehicle but was a pedestrian. Raquel Nelson was charged with second-degree vehicular homicide after her four-year old son A.J. was struck and killed by a vehicle as Nelson, A.J., and Nelson's other children prepared to cross a Georgia highway in 2010.

A law enforcement investigation determined that A.J.'s death was caused by Nelson's act of attempting to cross the highway with A.J. under unsafe conditions. Nelson was charged with second-degree vehicular homicide and a pedestrian crossing violation. The driver of the vehicle that struck A.J. was charged with first-degree vehicular homicide after law enforcement determined that he was driving drunk at the time of the accident.

Georgia classifies second-degree vehicular homicide as a misdemeanor and defines the crime as unintentionally causing the death of another person by violating any one of the state's traffic laws, except for traffic laws pertaining to DUI/DWI, reckless driving, duties of drivers involved in an accident causing death or serious injury, duties of drivers approaching a stopped school bus, and fleeing or attempting to elude a police officer. The violation of the traffic law must be the legal cause of the death.

In Nelson's case, the second-degree vehicular homicide charge was based on her violation of the traffic law that requires a pedestrian outside of a crosswalk to yield to oncoming vehicles unless, under safe conditions, the pedestrian has already entered the roadway. Based on the police investigation, Nelson had violated this traffic provision by entering the roadway with her children under unsafe conditions, and that violation resulted in A.J.'s death. (Ga. Code §§ 40-6-92, 40-6-393)

Nelson plead not guilty to the charges and proceeded to trial. A jury convicted her of both charges. At sentencing, the trial judge sentenced Nelson to 12 months of probation and 40 hours of community service. The judge then exercised her authority to grant a new trial by offering Nelson the choice of serving the sentence or having a new trial. Nelson chose the latter and then filed a motion to block her retrial, arguing that the evidence was legally insufficient to support her conviction at the first trial and that a retrial would therefore constitute double jeopardy. The trial judge denied Nelson's motion, and Nelson appealed the judge's ruling to Georgia's Court of Appeals.

In denying Nelson's double jeopardy motion, the Court of Appeals noted that the case was the first in the state where a pedestrian or parent of a child pedestrian was charged and convicted of second-degree vehicular homicide based on the victim being struck and killed while crossing a road in an unlawful manner. The Court also noted, however, that Georgia courts had previously ruled that a non-driver may be charged as a party to a traffic violation, pointing to a 2003 Georgia Court of Appeals case where the Court upheld the defendant's conviction for first-degree vehicular homicide based on the defendant having provided a teenage driver with alcohol (the intoxicated driver subsequently crashed the defendant's car into a tree, killing two passengers). After reviewing the evidence from the first trial, the Court of Appeals ruled that the evidence was legally sufficient to support the vehicular homicide conviction even though Nelson was not driving a vehicle, and therefore retrying Nelson did not constitute double jeopardy. (Nelson v. State, 731 S.E.2d 770 (Ga. App. 2012))

Facing retrial on the same charges, Nelson agreed to plead no contest to the offense of jaywalking and pay a $200 fine in return for dismissal of the vehicular homicide and pedestrian crossing charges, thus ending the unusual and controversial prosecution.

As you might imagine, this case was controversial and generated considerable publicity.

Penalties and Sentencing for Vehicular Manslaughter

Many states recognize different degrees of vehicular manslaughter. Statutes typically authorize more severe punishment for vehicular manslaughter convictions involving drunk or drugged drivers, as opposed to convictions based on non-DUI traffic offenses. For example, in Georgia, a driver who causes a death while intoxicated can be charged with first-degree vehicular homicide, a felony carrying up to fifteen years in prison. But a driver who causes a death while committing a moving traffic offense (such as failure to maintain lane position), is guilty of second-degree vehicular homicide, a misdemeanor carrying a maximum of a year in jail.

Penalties for vehicular manslaughter (both misdemeanors and felonies) differ greatly from state to state. In Alabama, for example, a person convicted of vehicular manslaughter based on DUI faces a maximum of five years in prison, while a person in Minnesota convicted of the same offense faces up to 30 years' incarceration.

Possible Defenses to Vehicular Manslaughter

Common defense strategies in vehicular manslaughter cases include attempts to exclude incriminating evidence, such as test results showing that the defendant was driving with a blood-alcohol level above 0.08. A defense attorney may argue that such evidence should be excluded because it was obtained in violation of the defendant's constitutional rights, or because law enforcement did not comply with procedures established for collecting the evidence.

A defendant may also argue that his intoxication was not the legal cause of the accident resulting in death (not an available defense in Florida, however; see above). Instead, a defendant may argue that an independent intervening event outside of the defendant's control is the cause of the death instead of the defendant's intoxication. For example, in Washington state, a defendant may be acquitted of vehicular homicide where a jury or judge finds that an intervening act caused the death, but the intervening event must be one that is not reasonably foreseeable.

A defendant may also present evidence that his reckless driving or apparent intoxication is due not to alcohol or drugs, but because of a pre-existing medical condition or medical emergency. While evidence of a medical condition can undermine a prosecutor's claim that a defendant was under the influence of intoxicants, a person who chooses to drive despite a known medical condition may still be charged with vehicular homicide if that decision to drive is considered negligent or reckless.

Learn about the steps you need to take when Facing Criminal Charges.

See a Lawyer

If you are facing charges of vehicular manslaughter, it's important to consult with a lawyer as soon as possible. An experienced criminal defense attorney can evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the evidence against you, explain possible defenses and help you develop evidence to support them, and set out the options open to you. These options might range from obtaining a dismissal to pleading guilty as charged in exchange for a specific sentence, negotiating a reduction in charges in exchange for a plea, or going to trial. Only someone who understands how prosecutors and judges in your courthouse tend to handle cases like yours can give you realistic and helpful advice.

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