North Carolina’s Death-by-Vehicle (Vehicular Homicide) Laws and Penalties

In North Carolina, a motorist who kills another person while driving under the influence or committing a traffic violation will likely face death-by-vehicle charges.

North Carolina defines “felony death-by-vehicle” as unintentionally causing the death of another person while in violation of the state’s DWI (driving while impaired) laws. “Misdemeanor death-by-vehicle,” on the other hand, involves causing the death of another person while committing a traffic violation other than DWI, such as speeding or reckless driving

Impairment. North Carolina law defines “impairment” as having a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of .08% or more, having any amount of a Schedule 1 controlled substance in the body, or being appreciably impaired by drugs or alcohol.

Causation. A motorist can’t be convicted of death-by-vehicle unless there’s proof that the motorist’s impairment or traffic violation was a legal cause of the death. In other words, there needs to be a direct link between the defendant’s unlawful driving and the death. 

(N.C. Gen. Stat. Ann. §§ 20-138.1, 20-141.4 (2017); State v. Lee, 237 N.C. 263 (1953).)

Death-by-Vehicle Penalties

The consequences of a death-by-vehicle conviction depend on the circumstances. But generally, the possible penalties are:

  • Misdemeanor death-by-vehicle. Misdemeanor death-by-vehicle is a class A1 misdemeanor. A conviction carries up to 150 days in jail and fines in an amount deemed appropriate by the judge.
  • Felony death-by-vehicle. Felony death-by-vehicle is a class D felony. Convicted motorists face 38 to 160 months in prison and fines in an amount deemed appropriate by the judge.
  • Aggravated felony death-by-vehicle. A motorist who commits felony death-by-vehicle and has a prior DWI conviction is guilty of “aggravated felony death-by-vehicle,” a class D felony. A conviction carries 64 to 160 months in prison and fines in an amount deemed appropriate by the judge.

All motorists convicted of death-by-vehicle face license revocation of at least a year.

(N.C. Gen. Stat. Ann. §§ 15A-1340.17, 15A-1340.23, 20-17, 20-19, 20-141.4 (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

Death-by-vehicle is a serious criminal charge. If you’ve been arrested for death-by-vehicle—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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