Vehicular manslaughter is always tragic. These cases often involve normally law-abiding people, who might’ve just been in a hurry to make an appointment or might’ve been distracted by a ringing cell phone.

Everyone makes mistakes, but when does a tragic accident become criminal?

California law says that if your driving results in someone else’s death and that person’s death was caused by your negligence, then you can be charged with vehicular manslaughter. Depending on the facts of your case, penalties for a vehicular manslaughter conviction can range as high as six years in prison.

If you or someone you love has been charged with vehicular manslaughter, it’s important to speak with a skilled criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. A simple mistake can easily turn into a tragic accident, but it shouldn’t ruin the rest of your life.

Vehicular manslaughter in California

California law defines two types of vehicular manslaughter, and the more serious form is Gross-Negligence Vehicular Manslaughter (California Penal Code 192(c)(1)).

In order to convict someone of a criminal charge, a prosecutor has to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that certain facts of the case are true. These are known as the “elements of the crime.”

Vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence has four elements:

  1. While driving a vehicle, the defendant committed a misdemeanor or infraction, or else committed a lawful act in a manner that might cause death. This can include infractions such as speeding or failure to yield. If the defendant was engaged in a felony, the case might be felony murder instead. 
  2. This act was dangerous to human life.
  3. The defendant committed the act with gross negligence. Gross negligence means that the defendant not only acted in a way that would result in death or great bodily injury, but also acted in such a way that no reasonable person would do what they did, because of the act’s disregard for human life.
  4. The act resulted in the death of another person. The prosecutor must show that the person’s death was a direct, natural and probable result of the defendant’s actions. For example, if a pedestrian has a heart attack as a result of a near-miss by a passing car, this is not vehicular manslaughter.

The less serious form of vehicular manslaughter is called Misdemeanor Vehicular Manslaughter (PC 192(c)(2)). It has the same four elements as Gross-Negligence Vehicular Manslaughter above, with one major exception:

  • The prosecutor has to show that the defendant was engaged in ordinary negligence, instead of gross negligence. California law defines ordinary negligence as failure to take reasonable care to prevent reasonably foreseeable harm to someone else. 

Whereas speeding the wrong way down the highway might constitute gross negligence, simply failing to notice a pedestrian or running through a stop sign might constitute ordinary negligence.

Penalties for vehicular manslaughter in California

Vehicular manslaughter is a “wobbler” in California, which means that it can be charged as a felony or misdemeanor depending on the defendant’s criminal history and the facts of the case.

As a felony, vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence is punishable by:

  • Up to 6 years in California State Prison
  • Fines of up to $10,000

All other forms of misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter are punishable by:

  • Up to 1 year in county jail
  • Fines of up to $1,000

Defenses against vehicular manslaughter charges

“This man is a very effective criminal defense attorney. I was charged but I never had to go to court because the case was thrown out thanks to his efforts. I was very worried because I didn’t know anyone who could confirm my location, but he was able to prove that I was innocent.”
Jason, CA

As we mentioned above, vehicular manslaughter cases are always tragic. They’re almost always the result of a simple slip of attention or failure to take care.

The steep penalties for vehicular manslaughter can make an already bad situation even worse.

When you speak with a defense attorney, he or she will review the situation and the charges against you. After a thorough review of evidence and the facts of the case, your attorney can craft a defense that will not only safeguard your constitutionally guaranteed rights, but can help put this situation behind you.

Robert M. Helfend has practiced criminal defense in the Ventura area since 1984, successfully defending thousands of cases for his clients. He is rated by SuperLawyers, Lead Counsel and the National Trial Lawyers Top 100. Call today for your free case review — 805-273-5611.