It’s every driver’s worst nightmare: you get in an accident, and someone else dies. It’s also one of the most common accidental causes of death in the U.S., with 38,824 people dying on U.S. roads in 2020, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
For some people, the nightmare gets even worse. After an already traumatizing accident, they are charged with vehicular homicide. These criminal charges penalize people who purposefully, recklessly, or negligently cause another’s death. However, they can also ruin the lives of innocent people. Here’s what you should know about vehicular homicide charges in California, how they can affect your life, and defenses against unjust accusations.
What Is Vehicular Homicide?
Vehicular homicide is an umbrella term for the various charges that can be filed against drivers after fatal car accidents. There are multiple types of homicide by vehicle in California that vary according to the circumstances of the crash. Potential charges include:
- Murder: If someone kills another person on purpose or with “malice aforethought,” they can be charged with murder. This includes if they kill the victim with a car. Hitting someone maliciously but without advanced planning, such as in a road rage incident, is second-degree murder. Meanwhile, planning the attack in advance leads to first-degree murder charges.
- Misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter: Manslaughter refers to any death that is not caused on purpose. A driver can be charged with misdemeanor manslaughter if they violate traffic laws or behave negligently when they cause a fatal accident. For example, running a red light or being distracted on the phone before a fatal accident could be grounds for misdemeanor charges. Furthermore, any deadly accident caused by an intoxicated driver will likely lead to a charge of “negligent vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated.”
- Gross vehicular manslaughter: Misdemeanor charges can be elevated to gross vehicular manslaughter if the driver acts recklessly, not just negligently. Reckless behavior creates a particularly high risk of injury or death. For instance, going 30 miles over the speed limit or driving the wrong way on the highway may lead to these charges. Additionally, the charges can be elevated to “gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated” if the driver is accused of being drunk or on drugs.
- Insurance fraud vehicular manslaughter: If a driver causes someone’s death while trying to cause an accident to commit insurance fraud, they can face this specific charge.
Penalties for Homicide by Vehicle in California
The penalties for vehicular homicide depend on the specific charges involved. As the name suggests, misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter is always a misdemeanor. It can lead to a year in prison and $1000 in fines.
Every other form of manslaughter can or must be charged as a felony. Gross vehicular manslaughter and negligent manslaughter while intoxicated are both “wobblers” and may be misdemeanors or felonies. Misdemeanors share the same penalties. However, felonies can lead to 16 months to four years in prison.
Charges for deaths related to car insurance fraud, gross intoxicated manslaughter, and murder are always felonies. Penalties range from two to fifteen years in prison, depending on the circumstances.
Additionally, any charge for killing someone in a car accident could affect your driving record. Depending on the circumstances of your accident, you could have demerit points applied to your license, you could have your license suspended, or it may be revoked entirely.
At a minimum, a conviction for misdemeanor homicide will likely add points to your license, making a future suspension more likely. If you are convicted of intoxicated homicide by car or gross negligence, you could have your driver’s license revoked. Even if you receive minimal criminal penalties for your conviction, losing your license could affect the rest of your life.
California Defenses Against Homicide Charges
California traffic authorities obviously want to deter drivers from unsafe behaviors as much as possible. However, this can lead to people like you being criminally charged for accidents that were not your fault. Your attorney will help you determine the best defense for these charges, including options like the following:
- Lack of negligence: The best defense against most vehicular homicide charges is a lack of negligence. Many fatal accidents are caused by the behavior of the deceased driver. If you followed traffic laws and otherwise demonstrated reasonable caution, you were not negligent and should not be convicted of manslaughter.
- Lack of cause: Vehicular manslaughter convictions may only be issued to the at-fault driver. Even if you were acting negligently, if your negligence was not the cause of the accident, it should not be considered grounds for a homicide conviction.
- Insufficient evidence: Criminal convictions may only be issued when the evidence demonstrates the accused’s guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt.” If there is insufficient evidence to prove that you were at fault for the accident, you should not be convicted.
- Lack of malice: If you have been charged with murder, your attorney may argue that you did not act maliciously. This may help reduce charges to those with a lower penalty or cause them to be entirely dismissed.
- Lack of intoxication: If the evidence around your intoxication is weak, your attorney will likely include that in your defense. You cannot be convicted of any intoxicated vehicular manslaughter charge if your intoxication cannot be proven. This often helps reduce charges and penalties.
The most effective defenses against any form of homicide will depend on the circumstances around the incident. Working with an experienced criminal defense attorney is crucial to ensure your defense is structured well. If you have been charged with vehicular homicide in Redwood City, California, you should seek legal counsel immediately. M. Gabriela Guraiib is prepared to defend you against these charges to the full extent of the law. Learn more about how the Law Offices of M. Gabriela Guraiib can assist you by scheduling your consultation today.