Michigan's Vehicular Homicide and Manslaughter Laws and Penalties

A motorist who drives recklessly and kills another person may face manslaughter or murder charges.

Unlike many other states, Michigan doesn’t have a “vehicular homicide” statute that applies exclusively to driving-related unlawful killings. However, a Michigan 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 manslaughter or second-degree murder charges being filed. And Michigan law imposes enhanced penalties for “reckless driving” and OWI (operating while intoxicated) offenses that result in the death of another person.

Here’s how Michigan defines these offenses.

Operating while impaired. A motorist is subject to enhanced OWI penalties for causing the death of another person while driving:

  • with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of at least .08% (get an estimate of how many drinks it takes)
  • with any amount of a Schedule 1 controlled substance in the body
  • impaired by drugs or alcohol to an extent so as to be substantially deprived of normal control or clarity of mind, or
  • visibly impaired by drugs or alcohol.

Reckless driving. Michigan law defines reckless driving as operating a vehicle “in willful or wanton disregard for the safety of persons or property.” Generally, the term “willful” refers to conduct that is purposeful or intentional, rather than accidental. And “wanton disregard” basically means the person understood the conduct was risky but decided to do it anyway.

Manslaughter. A motorist can be convicted of manslaughter for killing another person while driving in a grossly negligent manner. Basically, a person acts with gross negligence by knowingly doing or failing to do something that creates a risk of injury to others. In other words, the person is aware of but disregards the danger caused by the action or inaction.

Second-degree murder. A motorist who causes the dealt of another person while driving in a manner that shows the motorist knowingly created a “very high risk” of death or great bodily harm to others can be convicted of second-degree murder

The difference between manslaughter and murder is a matter of degree. And the dividing line isn’t always clear. However, in theory, the more egregious the manner of driving, the more likely a jury is to convict of second-degree murder (rather than manslaughter).

Fines and Jail Time for a Conviction

The consequences of a driving-related killing depend on the circumstances. But generally, the possible penalties include:

  • OWI involving death. A motorist who causes the death of another person while OWI is guilty of a felony. A conviction carries up to 15 years in prison and/or $2,500 to $10,000 in fines.
  • Reckless driving offense involving death. A reckless driving offense that results in the death of another person is a felony. A conviction carries up to 15 years in prison and/or $2,500 to $10,000 in fines.
  • Manslaughter. Manslaughter is a felony and carries up to 15 years in prison and/or a maximum $7,500 in fines.
  • Murder. A motorist who’s convicted of second-degree murder is guilty of a felony and faces up to life in prison.


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

The consequences of killing another person while driving can be serious. 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.


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