Vehicular manslaughter is the killing of another human being while driving a vehicle. You can face vehicular manslaughter in two scenarios. First, if you caused an accident that killed another individual while acting grossly negligently. The second way is by acting recklessly and causing a crash claiming another person’s life. Both scenarios result in varying penalties. The team at Koenig Law Office explains California law in detail. Contact us for assistance if you are accused of vehicular manslaughter in Bakersfield.

Vehicular Manslaughter Under California Law

Penal Code 192(c) addresses vehicular manslaughter. Under the statute, you commit a crime by killing another individual while operating a car. You can either be accused of:

  • A PC 192(c)(1) violation — Vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence
  • A PC 192(c)(2) violation — Misdemeanor or ordinary vehicular manslaughter, or
  • A PC 192(c)(3) violation — Vehicular manslaughter for financial gain

     a) Vehicular Manslaughter With Gross Negligence

A jury will only find you guilty of a PC 192(c)(1) violation if they prove the following beyond a reasonable doubt:

  • While driving a car, you committed an infraction, a misdemeanor, or acted lawfully but in a manner likely to result in another person’s death
  • Your actions posed a risk to human life, given the circumstances
  • You acted in a grossly negligent manner
  • Your actions caused another person’s death

We will examine each of the components meticulously.

Infraction, Misdemeanor, or a Legal Act Likely to Cause Death

Usually, an infraction denotes a minor transgression, such as a breach of traffic regulations. For example, if a person runs a red light and causes an accident that results in another person’s death, In this context, the infraction is running a red light. Infractions are punishable by a fine or a ticket.

A misdemeanor is a more serious offense. Sanctions for this can include either imprisonment in a county jail or the payment of a fine. If a person causes another harm while driving and is found to be driving negligently, recklessly, or violating traffic laws, he/she could face misdemeanor charges. Examples of the charges include:

  • Driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol (DUID/DUI) or
  • Driving with a suspended license.

On the other hand, a legal action that could result in death while driving refers to legal actions resulting in an accident claiming another individual's life. The lawful act should have the potential to cause death. For example, if a person is driving within the speed limit but is talking on the phone through a hands-free device. It is legal to use a hands-free device while driving. However, the act could distract a driver enough to cause an accident.

Note: The violation here should not be a felony. If you commit a felony while driving and it results in the death of another person, you will face felony murder charges and not a PC 192(c)(1) violation.

Gross Negligence

 Gross negligence refers to behavior beyond mere carelessness or ordinary negligence. It is defined as a disregard for the safety of others that is reckless or wanton in nature. In vehicular manslaughter, "gross negligence" means that the driver's behavior was so reckless or negligent that it created a significant risk of great physical injury or another person’s death.

Example: A driver texting while driving causes a fatal accident. In this case, the driver's conduct would be considered grossly negligent. This is because they engaged in behavior they knew, or should have known, was unsafe and could cause harm to others.

Gross negligence demands greater recklessness or a lack of concern for others' safety than ordinary negligence. For your actions to meet the "gross negligence" threshold, the following must be true:

  • Your conduct must create a significant risk of great bodily injury or death, and
  • A person of ordinary prudence would recognize that engaging in similar behavior would create a risk of harm.

Therefore, deciding whether a driver's actions can be classified as gross negligence is a factual issue that the jury must resolve.

Caused Another Person’s Death

A jury would convict you of vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence if the grossly negligent actions caused another person's death. The defendant's demise should be a natural, direct, or probable outcome of his act. A reasonable person would know that a similar death is likely due to his/her actions. Your acts should not be the sole reason for the victim’s death. However, it should be a substantial factor in causing the death.

The prosecution must establish that the victim's demise resulted directly from your actions. Proximate cause refers to the legal cause of the victim's death. Your actions were the primary cause, and the death would not have occurred but for your grossly negligent conduct.

     b) Misdemeanor Vehicular Manslaughter

You are guilty of a PC 192(c)(2) violation if the following elements are true:

  • While driving a car, you committed an infraction, a misdemeanor, or acted lawfully but in an unlawful manner
  • Your actions posed a danger to human life, given the circumstances
  • You acted with ordinary negligence
  • Your actions resulted in the death of another individual

PC 192(c)(2) only requires that you fail to act with reasonable care to prevent foreseeable harm to someone else. This is a lower burden than required when accused of vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence.

     c) Vehicular Manslaughter for Financial Gain

You commit vehicular manslaughter for financial gain when you kill another person while driving a car for financial gain and with gross negligence. The financial gain can be any form of monetary benefit, including receiving payment for driving someone, transporting illegal goods, or committing insurance fraud by causing an accident. Insurance fraud is the most common.

Vehicular manslaughter for monetary gain violates PC 192(c)(3).

A jury will convict you of a PC 192(c)(3) violation if prosecutors prove the following elements beyond a reasonable doubt:

  • You knowingly or deliberately participated in or caused an accident while driving a car
  • You acted knowing that the collision aimed at making a false insurance claim to gain financially
  • You acted with the intent to defraud another individual or an insurance company, and
  • Your actions resulted in the death of another individual

Note: You will face PC 192(c)(3) violation charges. You can make a fraudulent insurance claim if you accidentally kill another individual while causing an accident.

Negligent Vs. Intentional or Deliberate Acts

Negligent and intentional acts are two legal concepts with distinct definitions and consequences.

Negligent acts are actions (or failures to act) that are careless or not done with reasonable care. Negligence can result in harm or injury to another person. However, it is not done with the intent to cause harm. For example, if a driver is texting while driving and hits another car and causes injuries. His distracted driving is negligent behavior.

 Conversely, deliberate actions refer to behaviors performed with the intention of inflicting harm or injury upon another individual. For example, causing an accident to gain financially meets this threshold since you act with the sole purpose of causing another person's or the insurance company's losses.

Defenses You Can Raise in a Vehicular Manslaughter Case

Accidents do happen. However, police officers, prosecutors, and the surviving victims assume deliberate intent on the defendant’s part. Police officers hurriedly conduct their investigations with this bias. On the other hand, prosecutors aggressively pursue convictions, seeking the maximum sentences. These actions could mean a heavy prison sentence, adversely impacting your life.

There are a few defenses your Bakersfield defense attorney can assert to challenge the charges. They include the following:

     a) Lack of Gross Negligence

PC 192(c) requires prosecutors to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that your actions were grossly negligent. You can assert that you did not act grossly negligently if the prosecution fails to meet this burden.

The "reasonable person" standard used to define negligence and gross negligence is subjective. It can vary based on the circumstances of the case. Thus, it is challenging for prosecutors to prove negligence.

Additionally, driving a car involves split-second decisions. It can be challenging to discern whether a driver's behavior was negligent or simply a temporary error in judgment. This is why prosecutors and the defense must carefully review the evidence and build a strong case based on the specific facts and circumstances of the incident. A dashcam video or traffic cameras are likely sources of evidence your attorney could introduce in your defense.

Alternatively, if you are accused of gross negligence, you can assert that you acted with ordinary negligence. This approach will significantly reduce the charge and the penalties if convicted.

     b) Lack of Causation

A lack of causation defense argues that the defendant's conduct did not directly cause the victim's death. The prosecution must show that your conduct was the direct cause of the victim's death to prove vehicular manslaughter. If evidence suggests that the victim's death was caused by some other factor, for example, a pre-existing medical condition or another driver's actions, then a lack of causation defense could be appropriate.

For example, suppose the victim had a pre-existing heart condition that was the primary cause of their death. In that case, the defendant's actions did not directly cause their death. In this situation, the lack of causation defense could be successful.

However, even if the defendant's conduct was not the sole cause of the victim's death, it could be considered a contributing factor. Under California law, multiple causation is permissible. Therefore, a conviction is likely if the defendant's actions played a significant role in the victim's death.

Defense attorneys rely on several sources of evidence to prove the lack of causation in a vehicular manslaughter case. This evidence could include the following:

  • Expert testimony — Your attorney could hire expert witnesses, including a medical doctor, accident reconstructionist, or forensic specialist. They will testify about the cause of the victim's death and whether your conduct directly caused it.
  • Eyewitness testimony — Eyewitness accounts are equally important. Their testimony could show that your actions did not directly cause the victim's death. For example, a witness could testify that the victim was unconscious or unresponsive before the defendant's vehicle made contact.
  • Medical records — An experienced defense attorney could review the victim's medical records. He/she will look for evidence of pre-existing medical conditions that could have contributed to the victim’s death.
  • Surveillance footage — If available, surveillance footage of the accident or incident could help your attorney show that your actions were not the direct cause of the victim's death.
  • Police report — The defense attorney could review the police reports and other relevant documents to look for inconsistencies or gaps in the prosecution's case.

Ultimately, how convincing the evidence is to the jury determines whether they return a guilty or a not-guilty verdict.

     c) You Were Faced With an Immediate Emergency

One possible defense in a vehicular manslaughter case is that you encountered an unforeseeable emergency and responded reasonably, given the circumstances. This defense acknowledges that, in some situations, a driver could have to make split-second decisions to avoid an unexpected obstacle or danger on the road.

To prove this defense, your attorney would need to show that:

  • You faced an emergency that was not of your own making — For example, another driver swerved into your lane, or an animal darted out in front of your car.
  • You did not have a reasonable opportunity to avoid the emergency — For example, you did not have time to brake or change lanes before colliding with the other car.
  • You acted reasonably under the circumstances — This indicates that, given the limited time and options accessible to you at the moment, you made the most sensible choice possible.

If your defense attorney can prove all of these elements, it may be possible to argue that you were not acting negligently or recklessly when the accident occurred.

     d) You Were Not Driving the Vehicle

You could use this defense if you were not the driver during the accident. Thus, you cannot be held responsible for vehicular manslaughter. This defense is based on the idea that only the person driving the vehicle during the accident can be held criminally liable for vehicular manslaughter.

However, this defense could not always be successful. For example, if you were a passenger and knew the driver was drunk or otherwise impaired, you could be considered an accessory. Prosecutors could seek to prosecute you for your action.

Penalties if Convicted of Vehicular Manslaughter

The sentences for vehicular manslaughter vary depending on the violation the jury finds you guilty of.

     a) Vehicular Manslaughter With Gross Negligence

A PC 192(c)(1) violation is a wobbler. Meaning prosecutors can charge you with a misdemeanor violation or a felony violation. They factor in the circumstances of your case and your criminal past to determine what charges to pursue.

If convicted of a misdemeanor violation, you would likely face the following penalties:

  • Summary or misdemeanor probation
  • A jail sentence of up to one year and/or
  • A maximum fine of $1,000

If convicted of a felony violation, you would likely face the following penalties:

  • Formal or felony probation
  • A prison sentence of 2, 4, or 6 years and/or
  • A maximum fine of $10,000

     b) Misdemeanor Vehicular Manslaughter

Convictions for misdemeanor violations under PC 192(c)(2) result in the following penalties:

  • Summary or misdemeanor probation
  • A jail sentence of up to one year and/or
  • A maximum fine of $1,000

     c) Vehicular Manslaughter for Financial Gain

PC 192(c)(3) violations are felonies. You will face the following penalties if convicted of the offense:

  • Formal or felony probation
  • A prison sentence of 4, 6, or 10 years and/or
  • A maximum fine of $10,000

Revocation of Your Driver’s License

If you are convicted of either PC 192(c)(1) vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence or PC 192(c)(3) vehicular manslaughter for financial gain, California’s Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) will revoke your license. The revocation will last for at least three years from the revocation date.

You cannot legally operate a motor vehicle in California during this time. If you are caught driving while your license is revoked, you could face additional charges for driving on a suspended or revoked license under Vehicle Code 14601. These charges can result in the following penalties:

  • Up to six months in jail
  • Fines not exceeding $1,000, and
  • Further license suspensions

Note: Revoking your driver's license is a separate administrative action the DMV takes. It is in addition to any criminal penalties you may face for vehicular manslaughter.

Offenses Related to Vehicular Manslaughter

     a) Gross Vehicular Manslaughter While Intoxicated

Gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated is a violation of PC 191.5. The law makes it a felony to cause the death of another person while driving while intoxicated.

You can be convicted of gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated if you:

  • Drove a vehicle while under the influence of drugs or alcohol OR had a blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.08% or higher while driving
  • Committed an illegal act or neglected a legal duty of care while driving and
  • As a result of their driving, they caused another person's demise.

Vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated is a serious offense. It results in significant penalties, including:

  • Imprisonment for 4, 6, or 10 years in prison, or
  • Fifteen years to life in prison if you have a prior conviction under PC 191.5 or two or more prior DUI convictions.

     b) Watson Murder or DUI Murder

DUI murder, also known as Watson murder, is a second-degree murder charge. Prosecutors introduce this charge against a person who causes a fatal accident while driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

"Watson murder" comes from a 1981 California Supreme Court case, People v. Watson. The court held that a person previously convicted of DUI who then causes a fatal accident can be charged with second-degree murder if they acted with implied malice.

Implied malice means that an individual acted with a conscious disregard for human life. This means that the defendant knew that driving while intoxicated created a substantial risk of death or serious injury to others. However, he/she chose to drive anyway.

A conviction is only likely if prosecutors prove that:

  • The defendant was driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol
  • The defendant acted with implied malice; and
  • As a result of the defendant's driving, another person was killed.

DUI murder is a serious offense. It is punishable by the following penalties:

Fleeing the Accident Scene

Fleeing the scene of an accident can lead to more severe penalties in a vehicular manslaughter case. If you are involved in a car accident that results in injury or death, you are required by law, VC 20001, to stop at the scene and provide reasonable assistance to anyone injured. Failure to do so can result in hit-and-run charges, a separate offense from vehicular manslaughter.

If you are charged with hit-and-run in addition to vehicular manslaughter, you could face additional penalties, including:

  • Imprisonment of up to four years
  • Fines of up to $10,000 and
  • A longer driver's license suspension.

Additionally, fleeing the scene of an accident can be seen as an admission of guilt and can be used as evidence against you in court. It is always best to stay at the scene of an accident, call for emergency medical services if necessary, and cooperate with law enforcement.

Contact an Experienced Defense Attorney Near Me

In most cases, accidents are just that, accidents. Though they could be fatal, it does not necessarily mean you acted intentionally. You stand a better chance of proving this when you enlist the services of an experienced criminal defense attorney. The Koenig Law Office team has the expertise and understanding of the law and what it takes to defend your rights in a vehicular manslaughter case. We will investigate the matter, evaluate the evidence, and develop the best strategy to protect your rights. Call our Bakersfield office today at 661-793-7222 to schedule your initial case assessment.