Generally, the crime of vehicular assault occurs when an individual’s operation of a motor vehicle causes bodily harm to another. Vehicular assault laws differ by state. The punishment for the crime also depends on a number of factors, including how many people the defendant injured, and how severe the injuries are.
Individuals found guilty of vehicular assault may also be subject to civil lawsuits, in which the victim can recover damages for their injuries.
Some state criminal codes specifically contain the crime of “vehicular assault.” In other states, the crime bears another name, such as “aggravated assault by vehicle”; “serious injury by vehicle,” and “assault by auto.”
Regardless of the name given to it, the crime generally occurs when a driver causes bodily injury to another, while:
- Defendant was driving carelessly or recklessly, or
- Defendant was driving while intoxicated (DWI), driving under the influence of drugs, driving under the influence, driving while impaired; or
- Defendant was driving with a suspended license; or
- Defendant’s license was revoked.
Some states, such as New York, require that the vehicle causing the injury be at or above a certain weight.
Generally, the injury must constitute serious bodily harm or serious bodily injury. State laws differ as to what exactly constitutes serious injury; generally speaking, serious bodily injury means the following:
- Bodily injury that requires hospitalization; or
- Bodily injury that involves a substantial risk of death; or
- Bodily injury that involves a substantial risk of permanent disfigurement; or
- Bodily injury that involves a substantial risk of loss or impairment of an organ; or
- Bone breaks, fractures or burns.
If the victim dies as a result of the assault, a defendant may be charged with the crime of vehicular manslaughter or vehicular homicide. In addition, some states have expanded the definition of “victim” to include an unborn child.
Vehicular assault is defined as a felony (which generally carries a prison term of one year or more) in some jurisdictions, and as a misdemeanor in others. Within a jurisdiction, the crime may be a first-degree felony, second-degree felony, or third-degree felony, depending on its severity.
Generally, the more reckless someone is in committing the assault, or the higher the individual’s blood alcohol concentration level is, the more likely the crime is to be a felony than a misdemeanor, and the more likely the crime is to be a “first degree” or “second degree” felony as opposed to a felony with a lower degree. The number of people injured, and the severity of the injuries, also play a role in determining whether the offense is a felony or a misdemeanor.
In addition, if an individual commits a vehicular assault while driving under the influence (DUI) or driving while intoxicated, the individual can be charged with both the DUI (or DWI) and with vehicular assault.
An individual who commits vehicular assault also faces civil penalties, in addition to jail time and criminal penalties. Someone who was injured as a result of the assault may bring a claim in civil court for damages, to compensate them for their injuries, pain and suffering, and lost wages.
Another penalty an individual who commits vehicular assault faces is the temporary suspension of their driver’s license. The individual may be required to take driver education classes or pay a fine to have the suspension lifted.
All criminal defendants are entitled to due process rights. These rights include the presumption of innocence until guilt is proven. Due process also requires that the prosecution prove each element of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt.
Even if each element of the crime is proven beyond a reasonable doubt, a defendant may plead criminal defenses to the charges. Criminal defenses are legitimate reasons for having engaged in criminal activity. Successfully asserting a defense may result in reduction of a charge to a lesser charge. In some cases, a successful defense may result in a finding of not guilty.
One defense specific to the charge of vehicular assault is involuntary intoxication. Involuntary intoxication involves an individual being tricked into consuming an intoxicating substance, or being forced to do so. If an individual is forced to consume the intoxicating substance, the individual may plead the defense of duress.
If you are facing vehicular assault charges, or the equivalent of those charges under your state’s law, you may wish to consult with a criminal defense lawyer. The lawyer should have experience with state DUI, DWI, and driver suspension and revocation laws.
An experienced criminal defense lawyer near you can assess the facts and circumstances of your case. The lawyer can also advise you of your rights, provide case guidance, and can represent you at trial.