According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), almost 40,000 people are killed on American roads and highways every year. While some collisions are genuine accidents, many are caused by those illegally operating their vehicles. When this happens, and someone dies, the person illegally operating their vehicle may be charged with vehicular manslaughter.

Every state defines and classifies criminal charges differently. There may be a wide range of actions that qualify for a vehicular manslaughter designation. Here is a short guide to what actions can result in such a charge and the potential consequences.

Is Vehicular Manslaughter the Same as Vehicular Homicide?

Like many legal questions, it depends and can be confusing. In most jurisdictions, statutes separate vehicular manslaughter from vehicle homicide through the element of criminal intent. A homicide charge requires that the state prove premeditation and intent, while the former only requires negligence or reckless behavior to prove.

Many states may combine the two under the same category, often called vehicular homicide, despite the many distinctions. The states with this approach often use a degree system, with the more severe charges being higher degrees with stricter possible punishments.

Except for Alaska, Arizona, and Montana, all states have statutes explicitly addressing deaths caused while operating a vehicle. A defendant may instead be charged with homicide/murder or manslaughter in these states. A vehicular manslaughter charge may also be charged as a negligent homicide in certain instances.

Is Vehicular Manslaughter a Felony or Misdemeanor?

Vehicular manslaughter can be charged as either a felony or a misdemeanor, depending on the state and the facts. Many states do not prosecute crimes based on a felony/misdemeanor basis but through degrees. For example, a crime that would earn a felony classification in some states may be categorized as a first or second-degree criminal offense in others. Ultimately how vehicular manslaughter is charged comes down to the specific facts of each incident, including what illegal act was committed to cause the collision and how reckless or dangerous it was.

If a driver causes an accident while driving slightly over the speed limit, they will usually face lesser charges or punishment than if they had caused one while driving drunk. For example, a first-degree charge can be levied in Georgia if the driver was drunk, fleeing police, or overtaking a school bus. The less serious second-degree charge is used for all other non-homicide violations. The former is comparable to a felony and the latter to a misdemeanor.

What are the Possible Punishments for Vehicular Manslaughter?

A possible sentence for someone convicted of vehicular manslaughter depends on the state but can include fines, loss of driving privileges, probation, and prison time. These sentences may be enhanced due to a determination of gross negligence or if the convicted person has a previous criminal history (especially any driving-related charges/convictions). Intoxication also plays a factor in determining punishment.

Are there Defenses to a Vehicular Manslaughter Charge?

Most charges require that a prosecutor present evidence to meet a two-pronged approach to criminal responsibility. These are the actus reus, the illegal action, and mens rea, which is the person’s intent/state of mind that the action is wrong. Many legal defenses seek to disprove one of these elements, eliminating a vital part of the criminal charge.

To help negate actus reus, a defendant can present evidence that the deceased person also committed an illegal or negligent action, such as a pedestrian jaywalking in a busy street when signs prohibited such activity. For mens rea, the accused may prove that they were drugged or unintentionally consumed an illegal or intoxicating substance. This is known as involuntary intoxication. Some defenses will not apply to all vehicular manslaughter/homicide cases. The necessary level of intent can differ from case to case.

What is the Difference Between Ordinary and Gross Negligence?

Ordinary negligence is usually seen as inattention or carelessness. Ordinary negligence might include a mistake where the lack of reasonable care resulted in someone else’s death. Unintentional vehicular manslaughter is an example of ordinary negligence.

Other examples of ordinary negligence may include:

  • Accidentally running through a stop sign and hitting another car, causing death
  • Sending a text message and pulling out in front of a car, causing the death of your passenger
  • Speeding at 10-15 miles per hour over the speed limit and hitting someone, resulting in death

Gross negligence requires a willful or reckless disregard for reasonable care. Gross negligence often includes the influence of drugs and alcohol.

Examples of gross negligence include:

  • Speeding at 100 miles per hour on the freeway and causing a crash resulting in death
  • Driving while over the legal BAC limit of .08 and causing a crash resulting in a death
  • Committing multiple negligent acts at once, such as texting, speeding, and being under the influence of alcohol while driving.

What is a Typical Vehicular Manslaughter Sentence?

Anytime a death happens, there is no such thing as a typical sentence: your reputation and past record matter. A person with a clean criminal history will likely get a lesser sentence than someone with several convictions on their record.

The distinction between a misdemeanor sentence and a felony sentence is the amount of jail time served. The maximum amount of jail time for a misdemeanor, even with gross negligence, is one year in a county jail. The maximum sentence for a felony vehicular manslaughter charge is six years in state prison.

Ordinary negligence is typically grounds for a misdemeanor, although certain circumstances can increase the severity of the crime.

For example, you will likely receive an aggravated sentence if you flee the scene of the accident, cause the accident for financial gain, or kill a police officer. Any of these instances may turn an otherwise misdemeanor into a felony.

What Should I Expect With a DUI Causing Death?

A DUI causing death is a serious crime, especially with prior convictions. If you have a previous DUI, you may get a murder advisement where you’re warned that if you drink any amount and drive again and someone dies, you are charged as if you intended it.

Do I Need a Lawyer for a Vehicular Manslaughter Charge?

Any criminal accusation is serious, especially when facing serious criminal charges like vehicular manslaughter/homicide. If you are arrested and charged with this crime, you have the right to legal representation. Because every jurisdiction’s laws are different, it is imperative to seek the assistance of a criminal defense attorney in your state with experience dealing with such cases.

A criminal defense attorney can advise you of your rights and develop the best legal strategy to achieve the best possible result in your case. Your lawyer will be your advocate, from questioning and negotiations to defending you in court if necessary. Again, remember that you have a right to legal counsel, and you do not need to face such a scary time on your own.

If you feel you weren’t acting negligently and are innocent, you need an attorney to help you prove the facts of your case. A criminal defense attorney can help mitigate your punishment, depending on your criminal history.

Use LegalMatch’s services to find a criminal defense lawyer near you today.