Friday, February 5, 2016

What are the Different Kinds of Vehicular Manslaughter in California?

Vehicular manslaughter is the crime of causing someone's death while you are operating a motor vehicle.  That vehicle can be a car, a motorcycle, a boat, or even a golf cart. The big difference between manslaughter and murder is that murder charges require the prosecutor to prove that the defendant acted with "malice".  Think of malice as "bad intent" -- like intentionally trying to kill someone or acting so recklessly that death was likely or foreseeable. Manslaughter charges, on the other hand, do not require the prosecutor to prove that the defendant acted with malice.

If you are responsible for causing a traffic death in California, prosecutors may charge you with some form of "vehicular manslaughter", or even murder under some circumstances.  Not all vehicular manslaughter cases are created equal.  The major factors in determining how (or if) you'll be charged are:

-Whether or not you were intoxicated at the time that you caused the collision,
-Whether or not you have a prior DUI conviction,
-Whether or not you acted with "gross negligence",
-Whether or not you acted with "wanton and conscious disregard for life".

Accidents happen, and not every fatal accident warrants the filing of criminal charges.  If the DA wants to charge you with any form of vehicular manslaughter, they must prove that you did something illegal or dangerous, and that your illegal / dangerous act directly caused someone else's death.  The severity of the charges will depend on the nature of the illegal or dangerous act that you committed.

Vehicular Manslaughter, Not Intoxicated

If the underlying "illegal / dangerous act" is some minor traffic infraction (failure to signal, answering a text message, etc.) and that infraction causes someone's death, you could be charged under PC 192(c)(2), "vehicular manslaughter without gross negligence".

Vehicular manslaughter without gross negligence is a misdemeanor, punishable by a maximum of one year in jail.  You might not necessarily receive a whole year in jail (you might not receive any time in jail, depending on a lot of things), but it's on the table.

Gross Vehicular Manslaughter, Not Intoxicated

If the underlying "illegal / dangerous act" involves "gross negligence", though, prosecutors have the option of treating the case as a felony, with a maximum penalty of 6 years in prison.

Gross negligence is defined as "an extreme departure from what a reasonably careful person would do in the same situation".

Vehicular Manslaughter While Intoxicated

If the driver is intoxicated at the time that he or she causes a fatal collision, the case may be charged under PC 191.5.  Vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated carries a maximum penalty of 6 years.  To sustain a conviction, the DA must prove all the elements of a normal vehicular manslaughter charge (that the driver committed some illegal or dangerous act and that this act directly resulted in a death), and they must also prove that the defendant was impaired by drugs or alcohol at the time.

Gross Vehicular Manslaughter While Intoxicated 

As it's name implies, "Gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated" = vehicular manslaughter + intoxicated driver + gross negligence.  A conviction can carry up to 10 years in prison.

Wanton & Reckless, or "Watson Murder"

There is a controversial provision in California law (PC 188) that allows prosecutors to charge a driver with murder if the driver acts with "conscious disregard" for life and thereby causes someone's death.  The theory is that some behaviors are so dangerous that they carry an inherent risk that someone will die.  If a defendant knows about these dangers, consciously disregards them, and thereby kills someone, the killing will be treated as if it were intentional and not an accident.

To illustrate "wanton & reckless / Watson murder", I always use the example of firing a gun into a crowd of people.  The shooter might claim that he did not intend to kill anyone, but the act of shooting into a crowd is so inherently dangerous that the shooter should have foreseen the risk that he might kill a person.  If someone does die as result of that reckless shooting, then the killing is treated as murder and not as an accident.  The same principles apply on the road.

Textbook examples of "wanton & reckless" murder involve illegal street racing accidents.  News flash: street racing is dangerous.  The danger is part of the appeal.  If you engage in illegal street racing and someone is killed, though, be prepared to face murder charges.

A more controversial example is what we call "Watson murder".  Here's how it works:  whenever anyone is convicted of DUI in California, the judge is required by law to warn him or her that driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs is inherently dangerous to human life.  The judge is also required to order the defendant to attend and complete a mandatory alcohol education program, where they will learn about the dangers of drunk driving.  If that person is ever involved in a fatal DUI collision later in the future, prosecutors will argue that the defendant had special knowledge and awareness regarding the dangers of drunk driving because he or she had been previously warned and had completed the mandatory alcohol classes.  Since the defendant personally knew that driving under the influence was dangerous and consciously disregarded that risk by continuing to drink and drive, any resulting harm will be treated as if it were intentional and not an accident.

A conviction for Watson murder can carry a sentence of 15 years to life in prison.

There are many possible defenses to vehicular manslaughter and Watson murder charges. Depending on the evidence, your attorney may argue that you were not directly responsible for causing the fatal accident, or that there is insufficient evidence to prove that you were intoxicated at the time of driving.  Only a qualified criminal defense attorney can determine the best strategy for your particular case.

If you or a loved one has questions about vehicular manslaughter or Watson murder in Orange County, Los Angeles, Riverside or San Bernardino, call our office for a free attorney consultation. (714) 449-3335.  Ask for John.

Thanks for reading.

Orange County Vehicular Manslaughter Lawyer