Vehicular Assault

By , Attorney · New Mexico School of Law

If you injure another person while operating a motor vehicle, in addition to being liable in civil court for the injury and damage you cause, you can be charged with a crime. In some states, the crime is known as vehicular assault. The grounds for a criminal charge of this type vary from state to state, but most commonly arise out of causing injury to another while:

  • driving carelessly or recklessly
  • driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or
  • driving while your license is suspended or revoked driver's license.

Some states require that the injury caused be a serious injury rather than minor.

States that refer to this crime specifically as vehicular assault include Colorado, Delaware, Montana, New Hampshire, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Tennessee, and Washington.

When a death results from driving under these circumstances, the charge may become vehicular manslaughter. For more information on this crime, see Vehicular Manslaughter Laws and Penalties.

What Is a Motor Vehicle?

Depending on each state's law, the term motor vehicle can include cars, trucks, SUVs, snowmobiles, all-terrain vehicles, watercraft, aircraft, and trains.

Vehicular Assault Situations

State laws vary on the circumstances that will result in a charge of vehicular assault or similar crime.

Driving Under the Influence

Several states define vehicular assault as driving while under the influence of alcohol or drugs and causing serious bodily injury to another. Under some state laws, a driver is guilty of vehicular assault if he drives under the influence and causes any injury to another person (it need not be "serious"). A driver in this situation can be charged with both the crime of driving under the influence and vehicular assault because they are considered two separate crimes.

Driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs is driving while impaired by alcohol or a drug; or driving with a blood alcohol content above a certain level (at least DEFINITION, .08 BAC). Under most state laws, information about a person's blood alcohol level at the time of driving can be used to prove whether the person was driving while impaired.

  • Above the legal limit. If the driver's blood alcohol level (BAC) was above the legal limit defined by the state's DUI statute, the court or jury can presume the defendant was under the influence or driving while impaired.
  • Below the limit. If the driver's BAC is below a certain level, the court or jury can presume the defendant was not under the influence or impaired. The prosecutor can try to use other evidence to prove that the driver was under the influence, such as proof that he had been drinking, that his driving was impaired and that his impaired driving caused the collision.
  • Between the legal limit and a lower percentage. Finally, if the defendant's BAC was in a mid-range between the legal limit and some lower percentage designated in the state's DUI statute, the court or jury can consider the information as evidence of whether the defendant was under the influence. In Ohio, for example, the legal limit for DUI purposes is .08 BAC. If the driver's blood alcohol content is between .05 and .08, the BAC can be considered as evidence of whether the driver was under the influence. If the driver's BAC was below .05, he is presumed not to have been under the influence.

Reckless Driving and Negligent Operation of a Motor Vehicle

Several states include driving recklessly and causing serious injury to another as a basis for the charge of vehicular assault. In some states (Delaware, for example), a driver who operates a motor vehicle in a negligent manner and causes serious injury also is guilty of vehicular assault.

A person drives recklessly if he drives in a manner that he knows or recognizes is very dangerous or likely to result in a collision or other serious mishaps. The emphasis is on the fact that the driver was aware that his behavior involved excessive risk and chose to act without regard for and in spite of that risk.

A person drives in a negligent manner if he fails to exercise the caution that a reasonable person would or failed to recognize a hazardous risk. This can also be called "careless driving" and usually is defined as not exercising the reasonable care that a reasonable driver should. The law regards this driver as not careful enough but not reckless.

Serious Bodily Injury or Serious Physical Harm

Serious bodily injury or harm refers to injuries that are life-threatening, permanently debilitating, cause permanent scars, or result in the loss of a limb or a bodily organ. Bruises to the face are not considered serious bodily injury, but injuries to the face that require surgery or leave visible, disfiguring scars probably constitute serious bodily injury. Likewise, severe internal injuries or broken bones resulting from being hit by a car also constitute serious bodily harm under most criminal statutes.

Other Circumstances That Can Result in a Charge of Vehicular Assault

In some states, you can be charged with vehicular assault if you drive while your driver's license is suspended or revoked and cause serious injury to another person as a result of a collision. You need not have been driving carelessly, recklessly, or under the influence under this vehicular assault law.

In Oregon, a driver can be charged with vehicular assault by striking a pedestrian or bicyclist while driving and causing injury to that person.

Is Vehicular Assault a Misdemeanor or Felony?

In some states, vehicular assault is a felony, particularly if the state defines vehicular assault as driving under the influence and causing serious bodily injury to another person. In other states, the crime is a misdemeanor and, in some states, the crime can be a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on the circumstances and the seriousness of the injury to the other person.

Some states have more than one level of vehicular assault, such as first-, second-, and third-degree vehicular assault. Some of these states classify first-degree vehicular assault as a felony and second- and third-degree as misdemeanors.

Under New York law, a driver who is under the influence and drives recklessly or who has a blood alcohol level above .18 is guilty of first-degree vehicular assault if he seriously injures someone. This is a more serious crime in New York than driving under the influence with a blood alcohol level below .18 and causing serious injury to another without driving recklessly.

Possible Punishment for Vehicular Assault

The possible sentence for vehicular assault varies from state to state and depends on whether the crime is classified as a felony or misdemeanor.

  • Felony: the sentence can range from probation up to five years or more in prison.
  • Misdemeanor: the sentence can range from probation up to one or two years in jail.

Whether a person convicted of vehicular assault is sentenced to probation or time in jail or prison also depends on the state's sentencing laws and other factors, such as the seriousness of injuries, the number of people injured, the age of the persons injured, and the offender's criminal record.

The Value of Good Representation

A conviction for vehicular assault becomes part of your permanent criminal record. If you are convicted later of another crime, the court can consider your prior conviction and impose a harsher sentence in the new case. A conviction for vehicular assault – even a misdemeanor – can hurt you when you are looking for a job, applying to rent a house or apartment, and attempting to obtain car insurance. A convicted felon loses the right to vote and carry firearms and can lose certain professional licenses.

An experienced attorney can determine whether you have any grounds for dismissal of the charges against you, explore plea options, or represent you at trial. Only someone familiar with the local criminal court system and cases like yours will know how good your chances are for a favorable outcome in court or at the negotiating table. A knowledgeable attorney will take all of this into consideration, assist you in making decisions about your case, and protect your rights.

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