California Gross Vehicular Manslaughter (With DUI and Without DUI)
Understand the requirements of California's most serious vehicular manslaughter charge.
California gross vehicular manslaughter is charged in situations where the defendant drives in a highly reckless manner that causes the death of another person. When this charge involves an allegation that the defendant was driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, it becomes the most serious DUI-related offense with the exception of DUI murder cases.
To prove the defendant is guilty of California gross vehicular manslaughter, the prosecutor must show:
the defendant committed an unlawful act consisting of a misdemeanor, traffic infraction, or otherwise lawful act in a way that might cause death;
the defendant committed the unlawful act with gross negligence; and
the defendant's act of gross negligence conduct caused the death of another person.
Negligence means that someone acts, or fails to act, with the care and caution a reasonable person would have used in a similar situation.
Gross negligence requires an act so reckless that:
it creates a high risk of death or great bodily injury; and
a reasonable person would have known that acting in that way would create such a risk.
This requires proving that the defendant acted so differently from the way that an ordinarily careful person would have acted that he or she demonstrated disregard for human life or indifference to the consequences. Accordingly, flagrantly reckless driving, as well as allegations the defendant was DUI, make a finding of gross recklessness more likely.
Acts that are unreasonable, but not so obviously risky, are considered acts of ordinary negligence. California vehicular manslaughter convictions that involve ordinary negligence carry lesser punishment than those involving gross recklessness. (See below.)
Cause of Death
To be convicted of California gross vehicular manslaughter, the defendant's act of gross negligence must cause the death of another person. This means the other person's death must be a direct, natural, and probable consequence of the defendant's negligent act and would not have occurred without it.
A natural and probable consequence is one that a reasonable person would know is likely to happen if nothing unusual intervenes. In deciding whether a consequence is natural and probable, consider all of the circumstances established by the evidence.
There may be more than one cause of death. An act causes death only if it is a substantial factor in causing the death. A substantial factor is more than a trivial or remote factor. However, it does not need to be the only factor that causes the death.
California Gross Vehicular Manslaughter While DUI
A defendant can be convicted of California gross vehicular manslaughter whether or not the prosecutor also proves DUI (driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, intoxication). However, proving DUI makes harsher penalties and sentences more likely if the defendant gets convicted. (See below.)
Also understand that the prosecutor cannot prove the defendant caused a fatal accident by proving he or she was DUI. California law always requires the prosecutor to prove the defendant caused a fatal accident because they committed a negligent act other than DUI.
Sentencing and Punishment
A California vehicular manslaughter conviction that involves gross negligence usually requires felony punishment. Felony punishment is defined by a minimum of one year imprisonment in state prison.
However, California law does allow judges sentencing defendants convicted of California vehicular manslaughter with misdemeanor punishment. Proving gross negligence makes felony punishment more likely, though. Proving DUI makes felony punishment more likely, as well.
Relevant California Vehicular Manslaughter Sentencing Laws
Gross negligence + non-DUI driving: potential one-year county jail sentence; maximum six-year state prison sentence [California Penal Code section 193(c)(1)].
Gross negligence + DUI driving: potential one-year county jail sentence; maximum ten-year state prison sentence [California Penal Code section 191.5(c)(1)].
Ordinary negligence + non-DUI driving: maximum one-year county jail sentence [California Penal Code section 193(c)(2)].
Ordinary negligence + DUI driving: potential one-year county jail sentence; maximum four-year state prison sentence [California Penal Code section 191.5(c)(2)].
Lesser Included Offenses
These lesser (or lower) offenses are automatically included in a charge of California gross vehicular manslaughter:
California misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter. [California Penal Code, § 192, subsections (c)(1) and (c2)];
California DUI Causing Injury. [California Vehicle Code, § 23153].
DUI Cannot Serve as the Unlawful Act Causing Death
While proving a DUI offense satisfies the first requirement, it cannot satisfy the second requirement of proving an unlawful act. California gross vehicular manslaughter while DUI always requires the prosecutor to prove the defendant committed an unlawful act in addition to DUI that resulted in another person's death. (People v. Soledad (1987) 190 Cal.App.3d 74, 81 [235 Cal.Rptr. 208].)
The Unlawful Act Causing Death Need Not Be Inherently Dangerous
Proving the defendant committed an unlawful act in addition to DUI does not require proving the defendant committed an "inherently dangerous" misdemeanor or infraction. Rather, it only requires proving the defendant committed some act that was dangerous under the circumstances. Acts of gross negligence are dangerous by definition. (People v. Wells (1996) 12 Cal.4th 979, 982 [50 Cal.Rptr.2d 699, 911 P.2d 1374].)
A Lawful Act Committed with Negligence is an Unlawful Act
Proving the defendant committed an unlawful act in addition to DUI does not require proving the defendant violated any particular law. Proving the defendant committed a lawful act with negligence, that is, without reasonable caution and care, is sufficient to prove the defendant committed an unlawful act. (People v. Thompson (2000) 79 Cal.App.4th 40, 53 [93 Cal.Rptr.2d 803]; "Committing a lawful act in an unlawful manner simply means to commit a lawful act with negligence....")
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