California’s Vehicular Homicide and Manslaughter Laws and Penalties

A motorist who drives with negligence or recklessness and kills another person may face murder or vehicular manslaughter charges

A California motorist who causes the death of another person while driving might face criminal charges. Depending on the circumstances, an unlawful behind-the-wheel killing can be charged as murder, gross vehicular manslaughter, misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter, insurance fraud vehicular manslaughter, gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, or negligent vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated.

This article explains how California defines these offenses and the consequences of a conviction.

Misdemeanor and Gross Vehicular Manslaughter

A motorist commits misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter by negligently causing the death of another person while violating a traffic law (for example, speeding, running a red light, or reckless driving) or doing a “lawful act which might produce death, in an unlawful manner.” Under the circumstances, the traffic violation or “lawful act” must have been such that it was dangerous to human life. The mental state the prosecution must prove to get a conviction—“ordinary negligence”—requires a showing that the defendant failed to exercise the degree of care that a reasonable person would under like circumstances.

The only difference between misdemeanor and gross vehicular manslaughter is the motorist’s mental state. Whereas misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter involves ordinary negligence, gross vehicular manslaughter requires proof that the motorist acted with “gross negligence.” Gross negligence involves more than ordinary carelessness: A person acts with gross negligence by acting in a reckless way that creates a high risk of death or serious bodily injury to another person. In other words, the person’s conduct is such a gross deviation from the degree of care a reasonable person would use that it amounts to a disregard for human life.

(Cal. Penal Code § 192 (2017).)

Insurance Fraud Vehicular Manslaughter

A motorist commits insurance fraud vehicular manslaughter (also called “vehicular manslaughter for financial gain”) by causing the death of another person in the course of intentionally causing or participating in an accident for the purpose of filing a fraudulent insurance claim.

(Cal. Penal Code § 192 (2017).)

Negligent and Gross Vehicular Manslaughter While Intoxicated

Negligent vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated involves causing the death of another person while in violation of the state’s DUI (driving under the influence), underage DUI, or BUI (boating under the influence) laws and negligently (meaning ordinary negligence) violating a traffic law or doing a lawful act which might produce death in an unlawful manner.

Gross vehicular manslaughter while under the influence is the same as negligent vehicular homicide while under the influence except the mental state the prosecution must prove is gross negligence rather than ordinary negligence.

(Cal. Penal Code §§ 191.5, 192.5 (2017).)

Murder

Murder is defined as an unlawful killing with “malice aforethought.” In the context of an unintentional killing, malice aforethought means the person committed an intentional act—the natural and probable consequences of which were dangerous to human life—and did so with conscious disregard for the risk it posed to others.

The definition of implied malice sounds a lot like gross negligence. The California Supreme Court acknowledged the similarity but explained: “Implied malice contemplates a subjective awareness of a higher degree of risk than does gross negligence, and involves an element of wantonness which is absent in gross negligence.”

(Cal. Penal Code § 187 (2017); People v. Watson, 30 Cal. 3d 290 (1981).)

Penalties

The consequences of a driving-related killing depend on the circumstances. But generally, the possible penalties are:

  • Misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter. Misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter, as the name suggests, is a misdemeanor and carries up to one year in jail and a maximum $1,000 in fines.
  • Gross vehicular manslaughter. Gross vehicular manslaughter is a “wobbler”—meaning it can be a misdemeanor or a felony. As a misdemeanor, gross vehicular manslaughter carries up to one year in jail and a maximum $1,000 in fines. A felony violation, on the other hand, is punishable by two, four, or six years in prison.
  • Insurance fraud vehicular manslaughter. Vehicular homicide offenses committed for the purpose of insurance fraud are felonies. Convicted motorists are looking at four, six, or ten years in prison.
  • Negligent vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated. Negligent vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated is a wobbler. As a misdemeanor, negligent vehicular manslaughter carries up to one year in jail and a maximum $1,000 in fines. A felony violation is punishable by 16 months, two years, or four years in jail.
  • Gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated. Gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated is a felony and carries four, six, or ten years in prison. However, a motorist who’s convicted of gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated and has a prior vehicular manslaughter or DUI conviction is looking at 15 years to life in prison.
  • Murder. Generally, a driving-related murder is second rather than first degree. Second-degree murder typically carries 15 years to life in prison.

(Cal. Penal Code §§ 19, 190, 191.5, 193, 193.5 (2017).)

HOW MUCH TIME WOULD YOU ACTUALLY SPEND IN JAIL?

Sentencing law is complex. For example, a statute might list a “minimum” jail sentence that’s longer than the actual amount of time (if any) a defendant will have to spend behind bars. All kinds of factors can affect actual punishment, including credits for good in-custody behavior, “suspended” sentences, and jail-alternative work programs.

If you face criminal charges, consult an experienced criminal defense lawyer. An attorney with command of the rules in your jurisdiction will be able to explain the law as it applies to your situation.

Talk to a Criminal Defense Attorney

The consequences of killing another person while driving can be serious. If you’ve been arrested for a driving-related killing—or any other crime—get in contact with a criminal defense attorney right away. The facts of every case are different. An experienced defense attorney can explain how the law applies to the facts of your case and help you decide on the best plan of action.

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