Vehicular Manslaughter + Laws, Charges & Statute of Limitations

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A driver who accidentally causes an accident that leads to the deaths of passengers, occupants of other vehicles or pedestrians can be charged with vehicular manslaughter, or vehicular homicide, depending upon the state.

A vehicular manslaughter charge may be appropriate if you were:

  • Driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol
  • Driving recklessly or carelessly
  • Driving in an illegal manner, such as speeding well above the limit

Vehicular manslaughter is a relatively new homicide criminal charge. Before it came into existence, such drivers were usually charged with manslaughter, which is the unintentional killing of a person due to criminal negligence. However, it was found in court that juries often were reluctant to attach ‘manslaughter’ to a person who killed someone in a car accident. So, the term ‘vehicular manslaughter’ began to be used in most state criminal statutes.

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Vehicular Manslaughter Laws

Depending upon the state in which the alleged crime occurs, a vehicular manslaughter charge could be appropriate depending upon the circumstances. The typical driving types that lead to this charge are:

  • Negligent Driving

Ordinary negligence in many states can lead to a vehicular manslaughter charge. This is defined as inattention or lacking care and prudence that an ordinarily careful driver would exercise. For instance, a driver who takes his eyes off the road to change the radio could be charged with vehicular manslaughter if there is a fatal accident at that moment.

  • Criminal Negligence

In some states, driving that could support a vehicular manslaughter charge must be more reckless or egregious than simple negligence. Gross negligence and reckless disregard for the safety of others are common standards in these states. For instance, say a person drives at a very high speed and is intoxicated and runs through a red light and kills someone – that could be construed as criminal negligence.

  • Driving While Intoxicated

One of the most common ways that a driver is charged with vehicular manslaughter is that he or she was intoxicated or on drugs at the time of the accident. If this is proven in a court of law, this is how prosecutors can establish negligence or reckless behavior.

Intoxication is usually proven through the testimony of eyewitnesses, self-incriminating statements, and blood and breath tests at the scene or police station. In most states the prosecutor must demonstrate that the driving itself was reckless and careless. This means that just proof of the person being legally intoxicated is not enough.

Defendants with a blood alcohol level of 0.08 or higher are assumed to be drunk, although note that some states will set a lower threshold for some drivers, such as those under the age of 21, or commercial truck drivers. Even if the BAC is lower, prosecutors often can meet the necessary negligence standard by offering evidence that shows the reckless nature of the driving itself, in addition to the proof of some level of intoxication.

Drivers who are under the influence of a prescription drug also can be charged with vehicular manslaughter, if their driving leads to a fatality. For example, a driver might be taking a sleep medication on a prescription and the doctor warned him about its side effects. If the driver goes ahead and drives against a doctor’s warning and someone is killed, this could be enough to prove negligence or recklessness.

Vehicular Manslaughter Crimes and Charges

Vehicular manslaughter charges also can be brought by the prosecutor after the driver violates a safety law. For example, most states require that your windshield be clear of all obstructions and dirt so that you can see the road. If a fatality occurs due to your inability to see through the windshield, you could be charged with manslaughter. Also, passing vehicles on a road with a double yellow line is another example.

Some states also will single out a particular violation of law that is not always a safety violation. For example, under the law of some states, a completely sober driver who kills someone when passing a stopped school bus has committed a felony. Meanwhile, a death caused by other types of reckless driving (not DUI) can be punished as a misdemeanor.

Further, vehicular manslaughter can apply when a driver falls asleep behind the wheel. If someone dies as a result of this, the driver does not always face charges of vehicular manslaughter. The key question is if the driver acted in a negligent manner when he started to drive. For instance, manslaughter could apply if the driver is proven to have stayed up all night, worked all day and tried to drive after not sleeping for 48 hours.

Vehicular Manslaughter Punishment

Most states have several different degrees of vehicular manslaughter. There are statutes that set more severe punishments for vehicular manslaughter that involves drivers who are under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

For instance, in Georgia, a driver who kills someone while under the influence can be charged with first degree vehicular homicide, which may be punished by 15 years in prison. Meanwhile, a driver who causes a fatality while committing a traffic offense, such as running a stop sign, would be guilty of second degree vehicular homicide.

Note that a vehicular manslaughter conviction can have much more than criminal consequences. Many people who are convicted under the law also end up being sued for wrongful death in civil court. If the action that led to the conviction was particularly reckless, the driver could face punitive damages as well.

Vehicular Manslaughter Sentencing Guidelines

The prison sentences for this crime also varies a great deal by state. A person convicted in one state for vehicular manslaughter could face five years in prison, or 20 years in another state. Also, sentencing options can range from a suspended sentence or prison time.

In some cases in some states, a defendant could be placed on probation, or he or she could be restricted from owning a device with the ability to send and receive text messages.

Vehicular Manslaughter Cases

Quick Links & References

Vehicular Manslaughter Laws by State

Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Wyoming