According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), almost 40,000 people are killed on American roads and highways per year. And while some collisions are truly accidents, many are also caused by those operating their vehicles in an illegal manner. When this happens and someone dies as a result, they may be charged with vehicular manslaughter.

But because every state defines and classifies criminal charges in different ways, there may be a wide range of actions that can 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. The latter charge requires that the state prove premeditation and intent, while the former only requires negligence or reckless behavior to prove.

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

All states except Alaska, Arizona, and Montana have statutes specifically addressing deaths caused while operating a vehicle. In these states, a defendant may instead be charged with homicide/murder or manslaughter. In certain instances, a vehicular manslaughter charge may also be charged as a negligent homicide.

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 of each case. In addition, many states do not charge 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 a 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, in Georgia a first degree charge can be levied 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?

Once again, 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, which is 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, therefore 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 there are signs prohibiting such activity. For mens rea, the accused person may provide evidence that they were drugged or unintentionally consumed an illegal or intoxifying substance. This is known as involuntary intoxication. It should be noted that some defenses will not apply to all vehicular manslaughter/homicide cases. This is because the necessary level of intent can differ from case to case.

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 very important to seek the assistance of a criminal defense attorney in your state with experience dealing with such cases.

They can advise you of your rights and develop the best legal strategy to achieve the best possible result in your case. They will be your advocate every step of the way, through 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.