Vehicular Manslaughter in California

Drag racing is not just something you see in a movie; it still goes on regularly in real life, including in San Diego. Just this past weekend we saw a serious accident result from a drag race in Los Angeles, in which three people were killed and four more critically injured. The crash occurred when one of the racing drivers tried to pass a slower-moving vehicle, and the driver of the car being passed slammed on the brakes and hit a big rig. There were only two cars racing; the driver of one car was not apprehended, and the driver of the other has been arrested. That driver now might be charged with vehicular manslaughter.

Vehicular Manslaughter in San Diego Penal Code 191.5

Vehicular manslaughter, or gross vehicular manslaughter, is a criminal act set out in the California Penal Code. You can be convicted of vehicular manslaughter if (1) you commit an unlawful act while driving that is not a felony; (2) with negligence or gross negligence; and (3) somebody dies as a result of your act. In some cases, the act need not even be illegal if you act with negligence and death results. For example, if you lean over to pick something up while driving on the freeway and take your eyes off the wheel and an accident ensues, your behavior was not illegal, but it might still be negligent, and if someone dies at the scene, could lead to criminal charges.

If you are found to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time the vehicular manslaughter occurred, then you will be charged under a different section of the California Penal Code, which governs vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated. If you are committing a felony while driving (for example, if this is a police chase), then you will be charged with felony-murder, rather than vehicular manslaughter. Just like in the non-vehicular context, murder charges are more serious and carry longer sentences than manslaughter charges.

What other Circumstances Can Lead to Vehicular Manslaughter Charges in San Diego?

In addition to street racing, there are other times San Diegans face vehicular manslaughter or gross vehicular manslaughter charges. We have seen charges brought against clients accused of causing the death of a pedestrian or bicyclist or other driver because he or she was texting at the time of the accident. We have seen teenagers and adults allegedly driving at excessive speeds, and charged with vehicular manslaughter because a crash ensued and the driver of the other car died. In some cases, we have seen people charged with vehicular manslaughter after intentionally causing an accident for an insurance payout.

What is the Difference between Ordinary Negligence and Gross Negligence?

If you are charged with vehicular manslaughter and your conduct is found to be negligent, then you face misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter charges. If the prosecutor can prove you acted with gross negligence, however, you face felony charges, meaning much higher fines and longer prison sentences.

Ordinary negligence is being careless, or using poor judgment, or being inattentive (for example, if an accident results from a driver who looked away from the road for a second to change the radio station). Gross negligence is more than ordinary inattentiveness or carelessness; it occurs only when a person’s behavior is so reckless that it creates a high risk of death or grave bodily injury, and that a reasonable person would be aware that acting in such a way will create that risk. Basically gross negligence is behavior so far afield from how an ordinary person of regular care would act in the same situation, that it illustrates a disregard for human life.

Are There Any Defenses Available to Someone Charged With Vehicular Manslaughter?

The Ozols Law Firm is well aware that if you are involved in a car accident that results in anybody’s death, you are already in a state of crisis, undoubtedly grief stricken over what has happened. Being charged with vehicular manslaughter on top of that is often more than many people can handle, and is one of the most disruptive life events somebody could face. Feeling guilty does not mean that you should not defend yourself against criminal charges, however. The good news is that there are defenses that we can bring on your behalf if you are facing vehicular manslaughter charges.

We have successfully mounted defenses on behalf of clients charged with vehicular manslaughter that have resulted in charges being dismissed or reduced, and in acquittals in cases that proceed to trial. We have successfully argued that the actions of our client were not negligent, or were not grossly negligent. We have successfully argued on behalf of clients that although a death resulted from an accident, it was not the negligence of our client that caused the victim’s death. We have also see instances where charges have been reduced or dropped because the defendant argued that he or she was in an emergency situation, so under the circumstances the behavior was reasonable.

What are the Penalties if Convicted of Vehicular Manslaughter in San Diego?

If you are convicted of vehicular manslaughter in San Diego, the penalty you face will depend on whether the court finds you acted with negligence or with gross negligence. If you are charged with gross vehicular manslaughter, under California Penal Code 192(c), and you can face either misdemeanor or felony charges. The maximum sentence if you are convicted of misdemeanor gross vehicular manslaughter is one year in county jail; the maximum sentence if you are convicted of felony gross vehicular manslaughter is six years in state prison. If there is not gross negligence (just ordinary negligence), then the charges will be misdemeanor charges, with a maximum penalty of one year in county jail. If you are convicted of vehicular manslaughter for financial gain (an insurance payout), it is an automatic felony charge which carries a sentence of up to ten years in prison.

The misdemeanor fines can be as high as $1000, and the felony fines up to $10,000. Any felony conviction also results in a suspension of driving privileges. If you are a loved one is facing vehicular manslaughter charges and you would like to discuss the available options, call Alex Ozols, owner of the Ozols Law Firm for a free consultation.