Criminal Law

Vehicular Homicide: Driving Deaths in General

Vehicular homicide, when a person is killed through the use of a car or other vehicle, is a very serious crime. The penalties are serious, too, and usually include prison terms. Often the length of a prison term will be increased, depending on the circumstances of the case.

For example, in California, if the facts in a case include actions that amount to "gross negligence" and the driver was under the influence of alcohol or drugs (DUI or DWI), the sentence could be a four to ten year prison sentence. What if the driver has a record of DUI or vehicular manslaughter convictions? A prison sentence of 15 years to life is possible.

Because of such severe penalties, you need to understand thoroughly the laws of your state and defense strategies if you're faced with a vehicular homicide charge. An experienced criminal law defense attorney can help you in reviewing defense options. An attorney can also help in arranging a plea bargain, meaning you'd plead guilty to a less severe crime.

Elements of Vehicular Homicide

Classifications of the Crime

State law on vehicular homicide varies. Vehicular homicide can lead to a criminal charge and conviction for murder, manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide or negligent homicide. The exact name of the crime can vary from state to state. All of these crimes can fall within the legal definition of vehicular homicide. The crime charged depends on the facts of the case, the laws in your area, and the government's stance in pursuing prosecutions for vehicular homicide. State laws also vary on the elements for these offenses. For example, some laws include unintentional deaths, or require proof that your driving was reckless or grossly negligent, and not that you intended to kill someone.

Definition of "Motor Vehicle"

A vehicular homicide happens when a motor vehicle is the tool or instrument that causes a person's death. Generally, the definition of "motor vehicle" includes vehicles that are designed and used mainly to transport people and property on public roads. A vehicle's power source is something other than muscle or "manpower." "Motor vehicles" include:

  • Automobiles, or cars
  • Sport utility vehicles (SUVs)
  • Vans and mini-vans
  • Taxicabs ("taxis" or "cabs")
  • Motorcycles ("motorbikes")
  • Buses
  • Trucks, including "pick-up trucks" and commercial trucks

Some states include airplanes and motorboats within their vehicular homicide laws. However, all-terrain vehicles (ATVs), snowmobiles, farm tractors, watercraft, and skateboards are generally not considered to be "motor vehicles.

Place of the Offense

Unlike speeding and reckless driving, which many state laws prohibit only on the public highways and streets, a vehicular homicide generally can be prosecuted if it happened anywhere within the state, including on private property.

Potential Double Jeopardy Issues

The Double Jeopardy Clause of the United States Constitution provides that no person can be put on trial and convicted for the same crime twice. For example, a previous trial for drunk driving or traffic offenses may protect a driver from a homicide prosecution because he was already prosecuted for a crime due to a particular driving incident.

So, the first question you need to consider when formulating a defense to a charge of vehicular homicide is this: do any double jeopardy issues come into play because of an earlier trial involving the driver and the driving incident at issue?

Generally, a prosecution on a DUI or DWI charge against a driver will block or bar a later prosecution for vehicular homicide if the charges arise out of the same incident. Where the drunk driving is an element or component of the crime of vehicular homicide, a drunk driving charge is called a lesser-included offense of the vehicular homicide. Double jeopardy blocks further prosecution if the government pursues the lesser-included charge.

What about other traffic offenses or violations? For double jeopardy to apply, the elements of the offense that caused the death and the elements of the other offense, for which the defendant has already been tried, must be the same. For example:

  • A defendant can't be convicted twice for leaving the scene of a single accident
  • A defendant can't be convicted of both intoxication manslaughter and manslaughter arising out of a traffic accident when they involve the same victim

However, a defendant can be convicted twice of vehicular homicide if he caused the death of two different people in the course of a single accident.

A lawyer's failure to present a valid double jeopardy claim on behalf of a client can amount to ineffective assistance of counsel, and can be grounds for a legal malpractice case.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • Do factors such as level of intoxication or use of illegal drugs make a difference in the severity of the crime or the sentence upon conviction if someone commits vehicular homicide?
  • Is it vehicular homicide if the driver's actions leading to the death were due to a medical condition, such as a seizure?
  • Does the car have to be in use or in motion when the death happens? Is it vehicular homicide if someone leaves child in a car, or leaves a car running in a garage and carbon monoxide kills someone?
Related Resources on

- Get a Traffic Ticket video
- Reckless Driving
- Criminal Law - Traffic Violation articles
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