California Vehicular Manslaughter
In California, vehicular manslaughter and gross vehicular manslaughter, are defined in Penal Code 192(c) PC
In California, you commit the crime of vehicular manslaughter if ALL of these are true:
1. You are driving a vehicle and you commit a legal act that may cause death, or an act that is illegal but NOT a California felony
2. You were being negligent or “grossly” negligent when you commit that act
3. Someone is killed as a result of your negligent act.
And also CALCRIM 593 – Misdemeanor Vehicular Manslaughter (Pen. Code § 192(c)(2)). “ [The defendant is charged [in Count ] with vehicular manslaughter [in violation of Penal Code section 192(c)(2)].] [Vehicular manslaughter with ordinary negligence is a lesser crime than (gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated/ [and] gross vehicular manslaughter/ [and] vehicular manslaughter with ordinary negligence while intoxicated.)] To prove that the defendant is guilty of vehicular manslaughter with ordinary negligence, the People must prove that: 1 While (driving a vehicle/operating a vessel), the defendant committed (a misdemeanor[,]/ [or] an infraction/ [or] a lawful act in an unlawful manner); 2 The (misdemeanor[,]/ [or] infraction/ [or] otherwise lawful act) was dangerous to human life under the circumstances of its commission; 3 The defendant committed the (misdemeanor[,]/ [or] infraction/ [or] otherwise lawful act) with ordinary negligence; AND 4 The (misdemeanor[,]/ [or] infraction/ [or] otherwise lawful act) caused the death of another person.”
Felonies are left out because they instead qualify for the more serious crime of Penal Code 187 PC murder under the California felony-murder rule.
There is also a separate crime if you commit vehicular manslaughter/gross vehicular manslaughter while DUI. In that case you would be charged for violating Penal Code 191.5 PC, California’s vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated law.
Here are three situations that could lead to charges of violating PC 192(c), California’s vehicular manslaughter/gross vehicular manslaughter law:
1. A man sends a text message with his phone while driving, causing him to hit a pedestrian and kill him
2. A teen is driving above the speed limit on the freeway when he crashes into another car, killing the other driver
3. A man trying to collect an insurance payment deliberately drives into a telephone pole at high speed and accidentally hits and kills a pedestrian.
The penalties for California’s vehicular manslaughter/gross vehicular manslaughter law depend on whether you acted with ordinary negligence or gross negligence. For ordinary negligence the crime is a misdemeanor. If you acted with gross negligence, you will be charged with gross vehicular manslaughter. This offense is a wobbler in California, which means it can be charged as a misdemeanor or felony. The prosecutor gets to decide which way he wants to charge it.
The maximum sentence if charged as a misdemeanor is one year in county jail. As a felony the maximum is six years in prison.
If you are involved in an auto accident and someone dies, you are no doubt feeling overwhelmed already. To face a criminal charge of vehicular manslaughter on top of that may be a serious ordeal.
No matter how you feel, you have the right and ways to defend yourself to avoid piling criminal penalties on top of it. Some legal defenses available to 192(c) PC charges include:
1. You were suddenly caught in an emergency and acted reasonably under the circumstances.
2. You did not act negligently
3. Even if you were negligent, the negligence was not the cause of the victim’s death
To help you better understand California vehicular manslaughter/gross vehicular manslaughter laws, our California DUI and criminal defense attorneys will address the following:
1. While driving a vehicle, you committed an illegal act (besides a felony), or committed a legal act in a manner that might cause death
2. The act was a risk to human life in that situation
3. You act was grossly negligence
4. The act caused the death of the other person
Let’s explore the definitions of these terms:
An illegal or legal act that could cause death
The first requirement for a gross vehicular manslaughter conviction is that you either commit a California misdemeanor or infraction, or commit an act that is legal but you do it in a way that is likely to cause death.
For example, Frank is holding his cell phone and making a phone call while driving on the freeway (this is an infraction in California law). His friend George is in the passenger seat. He loses control of his auto and crashes into a pole. His friend George is killed in the crash.
Frank may be charged with gross vehicular manslaughter because he committed an infraction and caused a fatal accident while driving an auto.
Note that felonies do not count toward gross manslaughter. That is because the much more serious charge of California murder under the felony-murder rule would apply if you were committing a felony.
Gross negligence is the key element to the legal definition of “gross vehicular manslaughter,” Penal Code 192(c)(1). If the prosecutor cannot show that you acted with gross negligence, then you can not be guilty of gross vehicular manslaughter, though you may still be guilty of normal (misdemeanor) vehicular manslaughter (a lesser crime with lesser penalties).
Ordinary carelessness, error in judgment, or inattentiveness is not enough to make gross negligence. Gross negligence occurs only when someone acts recklessly and creates a high risk of death or great bodily injury, AND a reasonable person would have known that act would create such a risk.
To make gross negligence, the person has to act much differently from how an ordinarily careful person would act in the same situation. The act has to show a real disregard for human life or the consequences of the act.
For example, Henry is driving over the speed limit on a two-lane road at night with a friend in the passenger seat. Then, at a blind curve, Henry purposely crosses the double yellow line to pass three cars while going 10 miles over the speed limit. He hits an oncoming vehicle, killing his friend.
Henry’s actions show a disregard for human life and consequences and could be called gross negligence, which leads to gross vehicular manslaughter charges.
Causing the death of another person
For a conviction on gross vehicular manslaughter charges, your actions must be proven to be grossly negligent actions, and those actions must be proven to be the cause of the death of another person. The death must be the natural, direct, and probable consequence of your actions. Another way to look at it is that, a reasonable person would know death is likely to result from that action.
For example, while driving late at night, Joe decides to “have some fun” with his passenger Leonard and scare him by driving the wrong way on the freeway off-ramp. He enters the freeway from the off-ramp and drives to the next exit going the wrong way. There are few cars on the freeway at that time so they don’t hit anyone, but Leonard is so scared that he has a heart attack and dies.
Joe’s actions were grossly negligent and against the law. But because Leonard’s death was not directly caused by those actions (or a probable consequence) he may NOT be guilty of gross vehicular manslaughter.
In a gross vehicular manslaughter case, the negligent act does not need to be the only cause of death. If it is one “substantial factor” that causes the death it is enough for the charge to stick.
For example, Mike is weaving through traffic, going over the speed limit, and running red lights. Mike hits a pedestrian with the car. He does not kill the pedestrian, but he is left lying in the road unable to move. Another car then runs over the pedestrian he dies from this second hit.
Mike may be guilty of gross vehicular manslaughter. His illegal and reckless driving was a “substantial factor” that caused the pedestrian’s death, even though there were other factors.
1. The act committed was dangerous to human life under the circumstances
2. The act was a misdemeanor, or an infraction, or a lawful act committed in an unlawful manner, while driving a vehicle
3. The act caused the death of another person
4. The act was committed with ordinary negligence
The main difference between this and gross vehicular manslaughter is that one only requires negligence and the other requires gross negligence. Ordinary negligence is defined as a failure to use reasonable care to prevent reasonably foreseeable harm to someone else.
For example, Natalie is stops at a red light waiting to turn right onto a busy road at rush hour. She sees a small break in the oncoming traffic from the left, so she hits the gas to make the turn quickly. Since she was watching traffic from the left she does not look right. Just as Natalie begins to turn a pedestrian runs into the crosswalk. She strikes and kills the pedestrian.
Not watching for pedestrians at the intersection was a negligent act by Natalie but it probably is not enough for gross negligence. She is more likely to be charged with misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter.
1. Knowingly cause or participate in an accident, while driving a vehicle
2. You do so knowing and intending that a false claim for financial gain will be filed with an insurance company (in other words, commit auto insurance fraud), or another party
3. The collision causes a death.
In other words, it is considered vehicular manslaughter if you accidentally kill someone while staging an accident in order to commit insurance fraud.
If charged as a misdemeanor, the potential penalties are up to one year in jail, summary probation, and/or a fine of up to $1,000.
If charged as a felony, the potential penalties are up to six years in prison, formal probation, and/or a fine of up to $10,000.
If you drive during the period when your license is revoked for these charges, you will then face additional charges for driving on a suspended license (Vehicle Code 14601 VC.).
You did not act with negligence or gross negligence
Your negligence didn’t cause the victim’s death
Remember that your actions have to be linked as the cause of a death.
Even if you were driving in a negligent or grossly negligently manner and someone died, the prosecution must still prove that it was your negligence that caused the death. If the death could have been caused by the negligence of the victim or another party, that could be a potential defense to the charges against you.
An experienced criminal defense attorney will know how to challenge the prosecutor’s version of of what happened, and show that there may have been negligence from others that caused the death. If needed, our attorneys know how to bring in accident reconstruction expert witnesses to provide their testimony.
You faced a sudden emergency and acted reasonably under the circumstances
In a sudden and unexpected emergency you are only required to use the care and judgment that an ordinarily careful person would use in the same situation. If your actions can be shown to fit that description then you were not negligent or grossly negligent.
For example, Oscar swerves suddenly into oncoming traffic due to a moose entering the road. If he had hit it, he would have ruined his car. In this sort of situation, you might offer the defense that your actions were not negligent enough to justify a vehicular manslaughter conviction.
You are driving while “intoxicated” if any of these are true:
1. “Under the influence” as defined in Vehicle Code 23152(a)
2. With a BAC of .08 or greater as defined in Vehicle Code 23152(b)
3. With a BAC of .05 or greater if you are under 21 years old.
Vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated (Penal Code 191.5) without gross negligence is a wobbler punishable by up to three years in prison. Meanwhile, gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated is a felony, punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
Vehicular manslaughter (Penal Code 192(c) PC) is an additional lesser offense that gets included with charges of violating Penal Code 191.5, vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated. This means that if the prosecutor cannot prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you were intoxicated you may still be convicted of 192(c) PC instead.
If, after reading this article, you would like more information, we invite you to contact us at the Law Offices of Marc Grossman.
You may also find helpful information in related articles on Penal Code 187 PC Murder; Legal Definition of a California Felony; Penal Code 191.5 PC California’s Vehicular Manslaughter While Intoxicated Law; The California Felony-Murder Rule; Legal Definition of a California Misdemeanor; Legal Definition of a Wobbler in California Law; California Voluntary Manslaughter Penal Code 192(a) PC; Common Legal Defenses to California Crimes; Legal Definition of an Infraction in California Law; Involuntary Manslaughter California Penal Code 192(b) PC; Penal Code 548-551 PC California’s Auto Insurance Fraud Laws; The Definition of Great Bodily Injury/Harm; Felony (Formal) Probation in California; Misdemeanor (Summary) Probation in California; Driving “Under the Influence” as Defined in Vehicle Code 23152(a); Driving on a Suspended License Under Vehicle Code 14601 VC; DUI With a BAC of .05 or Higher While Under 21; Driving with a BAC of .08 or Greater Under Vehicle Code 23152(b); and DUI Murder/”Watson” Murder in California.
Call us for help…
If you have questions about Penal Code 192(c) PC vehicular manslaughter/gross vehicular manslaughter, or you would like a free consultation to discuss your case confidentially with one of our California criminal defense attorneys, please contact us at the Law Offices of Marc Grossman.
We have local criminal law offices in and around San Diego, Los Angeles, Riverside, Orange County, Ventura, San Bernardino, and several nearby cities.