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California Vehicular Manslaughter: Defined

The charges and defenses related to a criminal accusation that one person's faulty driving killed another.

California vehicular manslaughter means that a driver causes an accident (by violating a traffic law, exercising "ordinary negligence," or "gross negligence") and the accident causes another person's death.

Prosecutors particularly level this charge when a fatal car accident involves alcohol. Often, they presume the drinking party was intoxicated and that intoxication must be to blame for the accident. Police officers often jump to the same conclusion even when they don't have sufficient evidence of fault and the accident was unavoidable. As a result, law enforcement collision reports tend to be hastily prepared and slanted against the allegedly intoxicated driver.

People facing this very serious charge should bring an experienced attorney onto the case immediately in order to start building a vigorous defense while evidence is still fresh. This commonly includes obtaining an independent toxicology analysis and accident reconstruction report. The sooner the defense investigation begins, the better.

A defense attorney's professional experience in law enforcement can be invaluable in these cases. Our Los Angeles DUI Lawyers have successfully handled California vehicular manslaughter cases as both prosecutors and defense lawyers. Additionally, we work with some of the top collision and alcohol consultants in the state, many of them former police investigators.

Now, we have only one goal: to exonerate our clients and keep them out of jail!

California Vehicular Manslaughter Charges

The most commonly filed California vehicular manslaughter charges are:

Frequently Asked Questions About California Vehicular Manslaughter

Q: Is California vehicular manslaughter a misdemeanor or a felony?

A: It can be both. If the prosecutor alleges that the defendant's driving amounts to "gross negligence," the charge will be filed as a felony. An allegation that the defendant's driving only amounts to "ordinary negligence" can be filed either as a misdemeanor or a felony, however, "ordinary negligence" is more likely to lead to a misdemeanor charge.

Q: What is the difference between "ordinary negligence" and "gross negligence?"

A: Ordinary negligence means that someone fails to do what a reasonable person would do to prevent harm to himself and others in the same situation. Gross negligence describes a significantly higher level of recklessness. In California vehicular manslaughter cases, gross negligence means driving without any caution or concern for the safety of others. Even in a case that involves alcohol, though, an allegation of gross negligence requires more than just driving under the influence or DUI. Additional facts must be present, such as: speeding, racing, running traffic lights, or willfully ignoring the advice of others not to drive.

Q: If the defendant was not intoxicated or under the influence when the accident happened, can the prosecutor still charge vehicular manslaughter?

A: Yes. Although DUI is often present in vehicular manslaughter cases and can make the charge and the penalties more severe, the offense can still be charged even if the driver was completely sober. All that's necessary is that the driver (1) either violates a traffic law or exercises negligence (ordinary or gross negligence) and (2) and the violation or negligence causes the fatal accident.

Q: If I'm involved in an ordinary accident, such as a pile-up on the freeway, and another party dies, can I be charged with California vehicular manslaughter?

A: Often times, yes. Even if you were not drinking, not speeding, and not driving recklessly, the state can still charge you with vehicular manslaughter if there is some evidence you violated a traffic law and this violation caused the fatal accident.

Suppose, for example, you're driving 55 on the freeway. The car ahead of you slams on its breaks suddenly. You can't stop in time and you hit the car. The other driver dies. The CHP may say that you were violating California's "basic speed law" - driving too fast for the road and weather conditions at the moment. (In fact, the CHP says this is true any time you hit another car from behind).

Some prosecutors file California vehicular manslaughter charges in a situation like this that involves a pure accident that could happen to anyone. Keep in mind, however, that filing a California vehicular manslaughter charge does not mean it can be proven in court and produce a conviction. A good California vehicular manslaughter defense lawyer may be able to show that the accident was due to factors beyond the driver's control, and unavoidable.

Q: What are the penalties for vehicular manslaughter in California?

A: Misdemeanor convictions carry up to one year in the county jail. Felony convictions that include proof of intoxication can carry up to four years in state prison. Felony convictions that include proof of gross negligence and intoxication can carry up to 10 years state prison. Substantial drivers license suspensions may also be imposed.

Q: How do defense lawyers fight a California vehicular manslaughter charge?

A: In every California vehicular manslaughter case, a defense attorney must vigorously fight the allegation that the client was the cause of the fatal accident. In a case that involves drunk driving, a defense attorney must equally fight the allegation that the client was intoxicated.

Conducting an accident reconstruction with independent experts is critical to confronting and defeating the notion that the client's faulty driving caused the accident. Many times, our independent defense investigations reveal that others' faulty driving, organic road and weather conditions, or factors beyond anyone's control deserve partial or even complete blame for the accident. Uncovering these factors may lead to dismissal, acquittal, or charge reductions. At the very least, we always find that they produce a more favorable resolution to the case.

Fighting allegations of intoxication in these cases involves all of the strategies that apply to fighting a DUI. In our cases, our Los Angeles DUI Lawyers emphasize how BAC testing devices produce readings that are scientifically unreliable, how presumptions the defendant was impaired at the time of driving are unwarranted, and how police DUI investigations are inherently inadequate to support conviction.

Q: If a person's drunk driving causes a fatal accident, can he be charged with murder?

A: Sometimes, yes. The California Supreme Court specifically allows prosecution of so-called "Watson Murders," also known as DUI murder cases. In the words of the Court, DUI may support a murder charge when it amounts to "an act, the natural consequences of which are dangerous to life, which was deliberately performed by a person who knows that his conduct endangers the life of another and who acts with conscious disregard for life."

What that means is this: unlike most murder charges that are based on a plan or intention to kill, DUI murder cases are based on a disregard for others' safety that is so extreme it becomes equal to an intention to kill.

In order to prove this extraordinary level of disregard, prosecutors must show that the defendant was aware of the fatal danger of drunk driving, willfully ignored it by deliberately engaging in more drunk driving, and thereby caused the death of another person. To do so, prosecutors usually emphasize that a DUI murder defendant was specifically educated in the dangers of DUI by his or her attendance of DUI/alcohol classes required by the terms of multiple prior DUI convictions.

Additional Resources on the Internet:

Vehicular Manslaughter as a Global Problem
Discussion of traffic deaths as a global epidemic.

Riverside DUI Defense Lawyers
DUI defense attorneys defending against drunk driving and vehicular manslaughter charges in Riverside California, including Corona, Temecula, Palm Springs and Indio.

Vehicular Manslaughter Prosecution
Discussion of the prosecution of George Weller for vehicular manslaughter in the Santa Monica Farmers Market tragedy.

Drivers Safety Tips
The Share the Road Safely Program educates people about how to prevent accidents, injuries, and deaths by sharing the road safely with other types of vehicles.

Teen Drivers Safety
Driving Safety issues for teens and young drivers.

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