Tennessee’s Vehicular Homicide Laws and Penalties

A motorist who kills another person while driving recklessly will likely face vehicular homicide charges.

Tennessee defines “vehicular homicide” as recklessly causing the death of another by driving:

  • in a manner that creates a substantial risk of death or “serious bodily injury” to another person
  • while intoxicated by drugs or alcohol in violation of Tennessee’s DUI laws
  • in a street or drag race, or
  • in a posted construction zone (where a state worker is killed).

These four categories are all considered vehicular homicide but carry different penalties (see below).

Recklessness. For purposes of Tennessee’s vehicular homicide law, a motorist acts recklessly by knowingly doing something that poses a “substantial and unjustifiable risk” to others. In other words, the person is aware of but disregards the risk. And the risk, in regard to nature and degree, must amount to a gross deviation from the standard of care that a reasonable person would use under like circumstances.

Causation. A driver can be convicted of vehicular homicide only if there’s proof that the driver was a legal cause of the death. It’s not enough to merely show the defendant drove recklessly and someone died—there needs to be a direct link between the defendant’s driving and the death.

Intoxication. For purposes of Tennessee’s vehicular homicide law, “intoxicated” means:

  • the drugs or alcohol ingested impairs the motorist’s ability to safely operate a motor vehicle, or
  • the motorist has a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of .08% or greater.

(Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-13-213 (2017).)

Vehicular homicide Penalties

The consequences of a vehicular homicide conviction depend on the circumstances, including the category. However, the possible penalties are:

  • Substantial risk of death or serious injury. A vehicular homicide conviction that’s based on driving in a manner that creates a substantial risk of death or serious injury is a class C felony. A class C felony carries three to 15 years in prison and up to $10,000 in fines.
  • Street racing. Vehicular homicide related to street racing is a class C felony. (See penalties above.)
  • Construction zone. A vehicular homicide offense based on a construction zone death is a class D felony. Convicted motorists face two to 12 years in prison and up to $5,000 in fines.
  • Intoxication. Vehicular homicide involving intoxication is a class B felony. Generally, class B felonies carry eight to 30 years in prison and up to $25,000 in fines.
  • Aggravated offenses (intoxication). A defendant who commits vehicular homicide based on intoxication and has at least two prior DUI or vehicular assault convictions, one prior vehicular homicide conviction, or one prior DUI or vehicular assault conviction and had a BAC of .2% or more on the current offense is guilty of “aggravated vehicular homicide.” Aggravated vehicular homicide is a class A felony and carries 15 to 60 years in prison and up to $50,000 in fines.

All vehicular homicide convictions result in a three-to-ten-year license suspension.  

(Tenn. Ann. Code §§ 39-13-213, 39-13-218, 40-35-111 (2017).)


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. And in some cases, a judge might sentence a defendant to prison but “stay” the execution of the sentence, or a part thereof. Typically, a defendant who abides by conditions of probation won’t have to serve the stayed portion of a prison sentence.

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 homicide is a serious crime that can result in a long prison sentence. If you’ve been arrested for vehicular homicide—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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