Unfortunately, roadway fatalities are fairly common. When a driving-related death is purely accidental—meaning no one did anything wrong to cause the accident—or the deceased driver was at fault, there's no reason for anyone to be charged with a crime. But when a motorist kills another person by driving dangerously or while under the influence of drugs or alcohol, a criminal prosecution will likely follow.
Many states have "vehicular homicide" or "vehicular manslaughter" laws that apply exclusively to driving-related killings. Other states prosecute all unlawful killings—including those that occur on a roadway—under more generally applicable homicide laws. It's also common for state DUI laws to imposed enhanced penalties for motorists who cause the death of another person while driving under the influence.
This article gives an overview of how state laws handle unlawful killings behind the wheel. For more detailed information, see our state-specific vehicular homicide and manslaughter articles.
Most states have vehicular homicide or vehicular manslaughter laws—though some states call the offense by another name like "negligent homicide" or "homicide by vehicle." But how these crimes are defined and punished differs significantly by jurisdiction.
Kansas, for instance, defines vehicular homicide as causing the death of someone else while driving in a manner that creates an unreasonable risk to the person or property of another. The consequences of a Kansas vehicular homicide conviction—compared with other states—aren't all that severe. Vehicular homicide is a misdemeanor and carries up to a year, a maximum $2,500 in fines, and a license revocation (or restricted license) of no more than one year.
In Pennsylvania, on the other hand, a motorist can be convicted of homicide by vehicle for causing the death of another person while driving under the influence (DUI) or recklessly committing a traffic violation. Homicide by vehicle is always a felony in Pennsylvania. Depending on the circumstances, a convicted motorist faces a three-year license revocation, up to ten years in prison, and a maximum $25,000 in fines.
A number of other states have several different driving-related crimes that a motorist who causes a fatality can be charged with. For example, California has five types of vehicular manslaughter:
Depending on the situations, a conviction can be a misdemeanor or felony. Misdemeanor offenses carry up to a year in jail, whereas a felony vehicular manslaughter conviction can result in a life sentence.
State DUI laws often impose sentencing enhancements (in other words, more severe penalties) for DUI offenses that result in the death of another person. Typically, these enhancements apply regardless of whether the person who died was another driver, a pedestrian, a passenger in another vehicle, or a passenger in the drunk driver's car.
A DUI-death enhancement generally elevates a DUI from a misdemeanor to a felony and substantially increases the consequences of a conviction. Like in Missouri, a first-offense DWI (driving while intoxicated) is usually class C misdemeanor and carries up to six months in jail and a maximum $750 in fines. But a first DWI becomes a class C felony if the intoxicated motorist is involved in a fatal accident. A class C felony is punishable by up to $10,000 fines and three to ten years in prison.
Some states—such as Vermont, Arizona, and Alaska—don't have vehicular homicide or vehicular manslaughter statutes that apply only to driving-related killings. But all states have more general homicide laws that apply to accidental unlawful killings (regardless of whether the death resulted from a car accident).
Involuntary manslaughter (sometimes called "second-degree manslaughter) is probably the most of these more general charges. Though state laws vary, generally, a motorist must have been at least criminally negligent to be convicted of involuntary manslaughter. In other words, the defendant should have been, but wasn't, aware of the risk posed by the bad driving.
And for fatal accident cases where the motorist's driving was particularly egregious, second-degree murder charges are possible. To get a second-degree murder conviction, the prosecution usually needs to prove the defendant was knowingly driving in a manner that shows extreme indifference to the lives of others.
If you've been arrested or charged with a crime in related to a driving-related killing, get in contact with an experienced criminal defense attorney. Causing the death of another person while driving can result in a long prison sentence. A qualified defense lawyer can help you understand what you're up against and how best to handle your situation.