New York’s Vehicular Manslaughter Laws and Penalties

When a driving or boating under the influence offense results in the death of another person, the intoxicated operator may face felony vehicular manslaughter charges.

New York’s vehicular manslaughter laws apply to intoxicated drivers and boaters who, as the result of their intoxication, cause the death of another person. In New York, there are three categories of vehicular manslaughter: first degree, second degree, and aggravated. This article explains how each type of vehicular manslaughter is defined and the consequences of a conviction.

Vehicular Manslaughter Defined

All three classifications of vehicular manslaughter involve drunk or drugged operation of a motor vehicle (including boats) where someone is killed. But the presence of certain aggravating factors will elevate second degree vehicular manslaughter (the least serious classification) to a first degree or aggravated offense. Here’s how it works.

Second Degree

To get a second degree vehicular manslaughter conviction, the prosecution generally must prove the defendant:

  • was driving or boating while intoxicated by drugs and/or alcohol in violation of New York’s DWI (driving while intoxicated) or BWI (boating while intoxicated) laws, and
  • as the result of such intoxication, caused the death of another person. 

In other words, the prosecutor must convince the jury that the defendant’s intoxicated driving or boat operation was a cause of the accident that led to the fatality. It’s not enough to merely show the defendant was drunk and someone died—there needs to be a link between the defendant’s conduct and the death.

Example: After drinking all day at the bar, Joey hopped in his car and headed for home. Though he was extremely intoxicated, Joey’s driving was exemplary. While Joey was driving north on Main Street, Suzette was driving south on the opposite side. As she was about to pass Joey, Suzette suddenly swerved to avoid a pothole; she lost control of her car, went over the center island, and slammed into Joey. Suzette died as a result of the accident. Joey is not guilty of vehicular manslaughter because his drunk driving didn’t cause Suzette’s death.

EXCEPTIONS FOR LESS SERIOUS IMPAIRED OPERATION OFFENSES

In New York, there are several classifications of impaired driving. The least serious of these offenses is an “alcohol-DWAI.” A motorist can be convicted of an alcohol-DWAI for driving while impaired to “any extent” by alcohol. (A DWI conviction, in contrast, requires proof of impairment to a “substantial extent.”) The least serous impaired boating offense—which is similarly defined—is called an “alcohol-BWAI.” (For explanation of the various classifications, see our New York first-offense DWI and BWI articles.)

An alcohol-BWAI can’t be the basis of a vehicular manslaughter conviction. And an alcohol-DWAI can be the basis of a vehicular manslaughter conviction only if the motorist was driving a vehicle that was over 18,000 pounds and carrying hazardous materials.

First Degree

Second degree vehicular manslaughter is elevated to first degree if—in addition to committing second degree vehicular manslaughter—the motorist:

  • had a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) or .18% or more
  • was driving on a license that had been suspended for DWI or refusing to submit to DWI chemical testing
  • has a prior DWI conviction that occurred within the past ten years
  • has a prior vehicular manslaughter or vehicular assault conviction
  • caused the death of more than one person, or
  • had and caused the death of a passenger who was under the age of 15.

If the defendant is convicted of first degree vehicular manslaughter, all “lesser included” charges—like second degree vehicular manslaughter, DWI, and BWI—must be dismissed.

(N.Y. Crim. Proc. Law § 300.30 (McKinney) (2017); N.Y. Penal Law § 125.13 (McKinney) (2017).)

Aggravated

To get an aggravated vehicular manslaughter conviction, the prosecution must prove the defendant committed second degree vehicular manslaughter, was engaged in “reckless driving,” and:

  • had a BAC or .18% or more
  • was driving on a license that had been suspended for DWI or refusing to submit to DWI chemical testing
  • has a prior DWI conviction that occurred within the past ten years
  • has a prior vehicular manslaughter or vehicular assault conviction
  • caused the death of more than one person
  • caused the death one person and seriously injured at least one other person, or
  • had and caused the death of a passenger who was under the age of 15.

As with a first degree conviction, when a defendant is convicted of aggravated vehicular manslaughter, all lesser included offenses must be dismissed.

(N.Y. Crim. Proc. Law § 300.30 (McKinney) (2017); N.Y. Penal Law § 125.13 (McKinney) (2017).)

Vehicular Manslaughter Penalties

The consequences of a vehicular manslaughter conviction depend on the circumstances. But the possible penalties are:

  • Second degree. Second degree vehicular manslaughter is a class D felony. A conviction carries up to seven years in prison and a maximum $5,000 in fines.
  • First degree. First degree vehicular manslaughter is a class C felony. Convicted motorists are looking at up to 15 years in prison and a maximum $5,000 in fines.
  • Aggravated. Aggravated vehicular manslaughter is a class B felony. A convicted driver faces up to 25 years in prison and a maximum $5,000 in fines.

In deciding how to sentence a defendant within the allowable range, a judge is likely to consider factors such as the defendant’s criminal history and personal background.

(N.Y. Penal Law §§ 70.00, 80.00, 125.12, 125.13, 125.14 (McKinney) (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 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

Vehicular manslaughter is a serious criminal charge that can result in a long prison sentence. If you’ve been arrested for vehicular manslaughter—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.

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