Vermont’s Vehicular Homicide and Manslaughter Laws and Penalties

A Vermont motorist who drives with negligence or recklessness and kills another person may face homicide, manslaughter, or murder charges.

Unlike many other states, Vermont doesn’t have a “vehicular homicide” statute that applies exclusively to driving-related unlawful killings. However, a Vermont 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 murder charges being filed. And Vermont law imposes enhanced penalties for negligent operation, grossly negligent operation and DUI (driving under the influence) offenses that result in the death of another person.

Here’s how Vermont defines these offenses.

Driving under the influence. In Vermont, driving under the influence is defined as operating a vehicle while having a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of at least .08% or impaired by drugs or alcohol to even the slightest degree.

Negligent and grossly negligent operation. The difference between negligent and grossly negligent operation depends on the motorist’s mental state. Negligent operation is defined as failing to “exercise ordinary care” while driving. With grossly negligent operation, on the other hand, there must be proof that the motorist’s driving amounted to a “gross deviation from the care that a reasonable person would have exercised.”  

Manslaughter. A motorist can be convicted of manslaughter for killing 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 a 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.

Though worded slightly different, there’s little, if any, difference between grossly negligent operation involving a death and driving-related manslaughter.

Murder. A motorist who causes the death of another person while driving in a manner that shows a “wanton disregard of the likelihood that death or great bodily harm would result” can be convicted of murder.

The difference between manslaughter and 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 criminal negligence (the mental state for manslaughter).

(Vt. Stat. Ann. tit. 23, § § 1091, 1201 (2017); State v. Shaw, 168 Vt. 412 (1998); State v. Viens, 186 Vt. 138 (2009).)

Penalties

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

  • Negligent operation involving death. Negligent operation involving a death carries up to two years in jail and/or a maximum $3,000 in fines. And the offender can be convicted of a separate violation for each person killed.
  • Grossly negligent operation involving death. Grossly negligent operation involving a death carries up to 15 years in jail and/or a maximum $15,000 in fines. As with negligent operation, the offender can be convicted of a separate violation for each person killed.
  • DUI involving death. A DUI offender who kills another person faces one to 15 years in jail and/or a maximum $10,000 in fines. The offender can be convicted of a separate violation for each victim.
  • Manslaughter. Manslaughter carries one to 15 years in prison and/or up to $3,000 in fines.
  • Murder. A motorist who’s convicted of murder is looking at ten years to life in prison.

(Vt. Stat. Ann. tit. 13, § § 2303, 2304 (2017); Vt. Stat. Ann. tit. 23, § § 1091, 1210 (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

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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