Unlike many other states, Alabama doesn't have a "vehicular homicide" statute that applies exclusively to driving-related unlawful killings. However, an Alabama motorist who causes the death of another person while behind the wheel can be prosecuted under the state's more general homicide laws. Depending on the circumstances, a fatal accident could result in negligent homicide, manslaughter, or murder charges against the at-fault driver.
All homicides involve the unlawful killing of another person. The difference between the three types comes down to the mental state of the defendant. Here's how negligent homicide, manslaughter, and second-degree murder are defined in Alabama.
A motorist can be convicted of negligent homicide for causing the death of another person while driving in a criminally negligent manner. A person acts with criminal negligence by unknowingly doing or failing to do something that creates a substantial and unjustifiable risk to others. The risk must be of such nature and degree that the failure to perceive it constitutes a gross deviation from the standard of care that a reasonable person would use in like circumstances.
A motorist who kills another person while driving "recklessly" can be charged with manslaughter. A person acts with recklessness by knowingly doing or failing to do something that creates a substantial and unjustifiable risk to others. The risk must be of such nature and degree that the failure to perceive it constitutes a gross deviation from the standard of care that a reasonable person would use in like circumstances.
So the difference between negligence and recklessness—and therefore between negligent homicide and manslaughter—is whether the defendant was aware of the risk created by the conduct. Generally, a person who was aware of but disregarded the risk is guilty of manslaughter, whereas a person without such awareness is guilty of negligent homicide.
A person commits second-degree murder by recklessly engaging in conduct that creates a "grave risk of death" to another person under circumstances that show an "extreme indifference to human life."
The difference between manslaughter and second-degree murder is a matter of degree. And the dividing line isn't always clear. However, in general, second-degree murder requires proof of a more culpable mental state than recklessness (the mental state for manslaughter).
The consequences of a driving-related homicide conviction depend on the circumstances. Here are the possible penalties.
Generally, negligent homicide is a class A misdemeanor and carries up to a year in jail and a maximum $6,000 in fines. However, a negligent homicide offense involving a violation of Alabama's DUI (driving under the influence) or BUI (boating under the influence) is a class C felony. Convicted motorist face up to one year and one day to ten years in prison and up to $15,000 in fines.
Manslaughter is a class B felony. A conviction carries two to 20 years in prison and six months in prison and up to $30,000 in fines.
Second-degree murder is a class A felony. Convicted drivers are looking at ten years to life in prison and up to $60,000 in fines.
Murder, manslaughter, and negligent homicide are serious criminal charges. 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.