Criminal Homicide and Vehicular Manslaughter
In California, as in most states, the crime of homicide is classified in various ways. Each classification has specific elements that define the crime. As with all criminal statutes, if a person accused of a crime has not been proven to have committed each specific element of that crime beyond a reasonable doubt, then the accused cannot be found guilty of the offense.
The distinctions between different types of homicide usually have to do with the “mens rea”—or state of mind—element involved in the crime, although other factors can also distinguish one homicide crime from another. For example, traditionally, first degree murder is a homicide in which the perpetrator carries out the murder with “malice aforethought”—or, with the cold-hearted and explicit and premeditated intent of causing death to the victim.
In contrast, the term “manslaughter” is distinguished from murder because the intent element does not require the specific intent to cause death.
Traditionally, “voluntary” manslaughter is when an individual is gravely provoked in such a way as to induce a violent reaction, and ends up killing another human being “in the heat of passion,” rather than after any “cooling off” period in which that person should be able to regain his composure.
For “involuntary” manslaughter, however, a mindset of “recklessness,” “abandonment,” or “gross negligence” is sufficient to define the “mens rea” of the crime. That is, if one person kills another not out of any intent or desire to cause harm, but simply as a result of acting in a manner that is heedless of the likelihood of causing harm or death, the requisite state of mind element is met for manslaughter.
California’s Vehicular Manslaughter Statutes
Vehicular manslaughter falls into the category of “involuntary manslaughter.” Manslaughter does not lie every time an individual is killed in an automobile accident; sometimes, vehicle accidents in which people are killed truly are truly accidents, and no crime is committed.
However, if a driver operates his or her vehicle—whether it’s an automobile, boat, motorcycle, or any other vehicle—in a reckless or grossly negligent way, and that conduct results in the death of another human being, they may be facing criminal charges for manslaughter.
California Penal Code Sections 191.5 and 192 are California’s vehicular manslaughter statutes. They can be a bit confusing to decipher, but essentially vehicular manslaughter is classified into three types:
- Gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated;
- Vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated;
- Vehicular manslaughter.
“Gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated” is when the driver of a vehicle ends up killing a human being in the course of and as a result of driving while intoxicated beyond legal limits as defined by specific portions of the California Vehicle Code (which are misdemeanors), and with gross negligence. “Gross negligence” implies extreme carelessness, without any regard for the consequences or the welfare of others. Gross vehicular manslaughter is punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
“Vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated” is when the driver of a vehicle kills of a human being in the course of and as a result of committing any of the same misdemeanors dealing with intoxication, but without gross negligence. Vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated is punishable by up to four years in prison, depending upon the circumstances, but normally the sentence is less than one year in a county jail.
An example of the distinction between “gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated” and “vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated” would be if, in the first case, a driver is so intoxicated or high on drugs that they cross over a highway divider at a high rate of speed and slam head-on into an oncoming car, and, in the second case, if they are driving over the legal speed limit, and the accident happens because they failed to react in a timely and responsible manner to a normal traffic situation, such as a light turning red.
“Vehicular manslaughter” not involving alcohol or drugs is the killing of a human being while operating a vehicle in the course of and as a result of: a) committing an unlawful misdemeanor other than being under the influence; b) driving dangerously; or c) intentionally causing an accident to achieve financial gain (such as collecting funds from an insurance policy).
California’s vehicular manslaughter statutes also provide that persons convicted of gross vehicular homicide while intoxicated, and who have previously been convicted of this or other specified crimes, can face a sentence of 15 years to life. In addition, if a driver’s conduct amounts to extreme “wantonness” or with a blatant disregard for the risk to human life, a prosecutor can assert that the driver’s “mens rea” amounts to “implied malice,” such that the individual can be charged with murder, rather than manslaughter. A conviction for murder in California carries a minimum sentence of 15 years to life.
If You are Facing Charges for Vehicular Manslaughter, the Law Firm of Alin Cintean, Attorney at Law and Richard Dudek, Attorney at Law Can Help You
As explained above, if you are charged with vehicular manslaughter in California, depending upon the facts of your case, you may be facing an extended period in prison. This means that it matters a great deal which specific crime you are charged with—and it matters whom you hire to represent you.
At Alin Cintean, Attorney at Law and Richard Dudek, Attorney at Law, we have extensive experience representing clients charged with vehicular manslaughter, and we will fight aggressively to preserve your rights and to preserve your freedom. Remember: for a defendant to be found guilty of a crime, every element of the crime must be shown and proved beyond a reasonable doubt. Our job is to find the weaknesses and gaps in the prosecution’s case, and to provide evidence that supports our client’s position so that the prosecution cannot prove its case. When we get to work for you, we may be able to get charges reduced or even dismissed, and, if we go to trial, you can be sure we will do our utmost to undermine the prosecution’s ability to meet its burden of proof in your case.
If you need a criminal defense attorney to represent you in a vehicular manslaughter case, call Alin Cintean, Attorney at Law and Richard Dudek, Attorney at Law. We have offices in San Francisco (415) 946-4020, and in Contra Costa County (925) 335-6444, or you may use the online form right here on this website. Contact us today for a consultation.