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UPDATED: Jul 15, 2021
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Vehicular manslaughter occurs when an individual recklessly causes the death of another person through the use of any type of motor vehicle. Vehicular manslaughter is also referred to as vehicular homicide or reckless assault with a deadly weapon. Although people often think of vehicular manslaughter in the context of a DUI offense, the charge actually has a much broader application. A defendant charged with vehicular manslaughter should understand the nature of vehicular homicide charges, potential defenses and possible penalties, and the long-term consequences of the charges of causing the death of another in a vehicular manslaughter charge.
Reckless Conduct Amounting to Vehicular Manslaughter
Vehicular manslaughter often occurs during drunk driving. However, while intoxicated assaults are commonly prosecuted under this charge, the charge of vehicular manslaughter itself can apply to a variety of situations wherein a person recklessly causes the death of another. Reckless conduct is when someone is aware of a risk, but disregards the risk to others. The most recent usage has been in the area of texting while driving.
Before texting while driving laws were passed, many prosecutors used vehicular manslaughter charges to prosecute defendants who caused the death of a child while texting because they simply were not paying attention to warning signs or speed limits. Similarly, the vehicular manslaughter charge has been used to prosecute truck drivers who were found to be driving in violation of Department of Transportation (DOT) rules limiting the drive time of commercial drivers. These DOT rules are designed to ensure that a truck driver is not tired or fatigued while driving. If a truck driver recklessly operates heavy equipment knowing they are fatigued, they, or in some states, their employer or company, could be prosecuted for vehicular manslaughter if a person was killed as a result of such reckless conduct.
Other cases of vehicular manslaughter have included incidents of road rage and street racing. Because reckless conduct is so broadly defined in most states, a wide range of actions could qualify as a charge of vehicular homicide.
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Vehicular Manslaughter Defenses
Defenses for this type of crime tend to be more limited than those for a regular homicide charge. Most homicide charges include provisions for self-defense. Because the mental state associated with vehicular manslaughter is said to be reckless, or in disregard of a risk, many states will not allow a defendant to claim self-defense. However, some defenses are still available. The most significant is to disprove causation.
The death of an individual is not enough to convict someone of vehicular manslaughter. The state must also show a connection between the death and the conduct of the defendant. For example, if a defendant can show that it was actually the conduct of the victim, not the defendant, that caused the death, lack of causation would be a defense. The approach to this defense is very similar to defending a claim in a civil suit involving a car accident case. Even if the defense is not completely successful, a defendant may still be able to get their charges reduced to a lower level, like criminally negligent homicide.
Criminal Consequences for Vehicular Manslaughter
The criminal consequences for vehicular homicide or vehicular manslaughter are similar to those of any other felony. Sentencing options range from deferred or suspended sentences to time in prison. Because the nature of this charge punishes reckless, but not intentional, acts the range of punishment tends to be lower than an intentional homicide. However, sentences can still be significant, ranging anywhere from two years on the low end up to twenty years on the high end, in some states.
If a defendant is placed on probation, a judge can order the defendant to comply with specialized conditions related to the offense. For example, someone convicted of killing a child while texting and driving could be required to face victim impact panels (groups of victims), so that they will understand the results of their choices. A judge can also restrict the defendant from possessing devices with text capabilities. If medical expenses were incurred by the family of the deceased, a defendant can be ordered to pay restitution to the family for their actual expenses.
Long-Term Consequences of Vehicular Manslaughter
Vehicular manslaughter can also have long-term consequences. The first involves overlap with any related civil suits. A criminal plea only resolves the criminal case; it does not make the civil case go away. Once a defendant enters a plea of guilty in a criminal case, that plea can be used against a defendant in a subsequent civil suit. A judge can award actual damages (like medical bills and vehicle damage) in the criminal case, but cannot award other punitive damages (like pain and suffering or loss of company).
The family of the deceased can pursue a civil suit to recover their own damages or punitive damages. A plea or finding of guilty can also affect whether a defendant’s insurance company will be helpful in their civil defense. Generally, a person’s insurance company is required to help them defend a civil suit when they are involved in car accident. However, some policies have provisions that do not require the insurance company to provide this assistance if the actions that caused the wreck were the result of a felony-level offense.
In addition, as with any criminal conviction, vehicular manslaughter appears as a criminal record during background checks that may be performed by employers or licensing boards. A criminal conviction may cause difficulty finding employment or gaining entry into universities and colleges, and may preclude an individual from practicing in certain professions such as teaching, government work, the medical field, and other employment areas and industries.
A felony conviction will often appear during background checks performed by potentiaal landlords, as well, and may cause people to have difficulty finding housing. In addition, a person convicted of a felony may not sit on a jury, run for office, volunteer at a public school where their child attends, or many other activities.
Vehicular manslaughter charges are very serious. Although public defenders or state provided criminal attorneys may be provided in some cases, these lawyers tend to have huge caseloads and little time to devote to individual cases. While in some situations a public defender may be sufficient, it is highly recommended that someone facing vehicular manslaughter or vehicular homicide charges consult with a criminal lawyer who has ample time to devote to the case.