Vehicular Manslaughter and Vehicular Homicide

vehicular-manslaughterVehicular homicide (also referred to as aggravated vehicular homicide, vehicular manslaughter, and various state designations) is a crime that involves a death resulting from the negligent operation of a vehicle or a crime resulting from driving while committing an unlawful act that does not merit a felony charge.  Vehicular homicide entails the unintentional, yet unlawful, killing of another human being as the result of a car accident.  The crime requires proof that the death resulted from a driver operating an automobile with gross negligence or simple negligence and in violation of some law not amounting to a felony.  A common use of the vehicular manslaughter charge involves prosecution for a death caused by driving under the influence, although an independent infraction (driving with a suspended driver’s license, or negligence), is usually also required.  Included in the crime of vehicular homicide is the unlawful termination of another’s pregnancy that results as the result of an automobile accident.

Vehicular homicide is a lesser charge than manslaughter and is included in the offense of negligent homicide.  Vehicular homicide statutes basically consider a vehicle as a potentially deadly weapon which allows for easy conviction and sometimes severe penalties.  The victim of a vehicular homicide may be either a person not in the car with the driver, a pedestrian or other motorist, or a passenger in the vehicle with the driver.  Drivers convicted of vehicular homicide are given shorter sentences than people found to be guilty of other types of homicide, but do end up with a criminal record and some form of lesser punishment.

The advent of vehicular homicide as a separate crime from manslaughter is a result of the reluctance of juries in the criminal justice system to convict automobile drivers of murder or manslaughter for death caused by reckless or negligent driving.  Thus, the standards of proof and those for sentencing are less stringent for vehicular homicide than for involuntary manslaughter, and in some states vehicular homicide is part of the vehicle code rather than the criminal code. In other states, drunk drivers can face murder charges.  In Ohio a man pled no contest to charges of running a red light and vehicular homicide when an airbag deployed in an accident and killed his infant son.  Though no law in Ohio required that the airbag be switched off, and no law, as of the time of the incident, stipulated that the child had to be in the back seat, safety stickers in the vehicle and on the baby’s care seat warned of the danger.  The father was sentenced to spend the child’s birthday and the anniversary of the accident in jail.

In various states, vehicular homicide is referred to by various terminologies with the same crime being referenced.  However, in other states, the offense is distinctly defined, as in Texas where the term used is intoxication manslaughter.  Intoxication manslaughter is defined as “a crime in which a person operates a motor vehicle in a public place, operates an aircraft, a watercraft, or an amusement ride, or assembles a mobile amusement ride while intoxicated, and by reason of that intoxication, causes the death of another by accident or mistake” (Tex. Penal Code §49.08).  The fact that a defendant is entitled to use alcohol, or some other substance, is not a valid defense for intoxication manslaughter in Texas.  In fact, in New York to be convicted of vehicular manslaughter in the second degree, it is not necessary to prove the person was negligent in causing the death of another, nor that they unlawfully used the substance that intoxicated them, but only that they were intoxicated, operated a motor vehicle, and someone died (N.Y. Penal Law § 125.3).

Vehicular homicide can be charged either as a misdemeanor or as a felony, depending on the severity of the situation and whether the driver was merely negligent or grossly negligent in operating his vehicle.  A misdemeanor vehicular homicide charge is considered a minor crime with a maximum punishment of a year in jail and a fine.  A felony charge of vehicular homicide is punishable by a term in state prison, the time of the prison term depending upon the circumstances of the incident.  Gross negligence or driving a few miles over the speed limit might be charged as a misdemeanor, but drunk driving resulting in a fatality will most likely be treated as a felony.  In general, consequences for a conviction on a charge of vehicular homicide or vehicular manslaughter are long-term imprisonment, probation or parole, revocation of driving privileges, and significant fines.

Defenses for vehicular homicide include, proving the driver was not at fault, proving a lack of negligence, showing insufficient evidence, and proving factual innocence. Defending of these cases in the US criminal justice system is best handled by experienced and specialized attorneys.

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