Vehicular manslaughter (also known as vehicular homicide) is defined as “the crime of causing the death of a human being due to illegal driving of an automobile, including gross negligence, drunk driving, reckless driving or speeding.” The victim may be a bystander, pedestrian, cyclist, motorist in another vehicle, or even a passenger inside the offender’s vehicle. And because it involves a fatality, vehicular manslaughter is one of the most serious criminal offenses.
Not all states distinguish vehicular manslaughter from involuntary manslaughter. The states without a vehicular manslaughter statute may still prosecute a person who causes the death of another by unlawfully or negligently operating a motor vehicle, but they do so under the state’s involuntary manslaughter statute.
Other state legislatures have enacted specific vehicular homicide statutes, in an effort to reduce the number of deaths caused by motor vehicle crashes. Such statutes generally allow for easier convictions and more severe penalties than the standard involuntary manslaughter statute.
Depending on the circumstances, vehicular manslaughter may be a misdemeanor or a felony. For example, a driver who causes a fatal accident by going only a few miles per hour above the posted speed limit will likely be charged with a misdemeanor, with a maximum sentence of one year in jail. In contrast, an intoxicated driver would likely be charged with a felony and face a much steeper penalty, including significant prison time. Every year, states enact tougher and tougher DWI laws, especially in cases in which a fatality occurs. In some states, previous DWI offenders who are at fault in a fatal vehicle accident can be hit with a second or even first-degree murder charge.
To be convicted of vehicular manslaughter, the State must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the driver acted recklessly or negligently behind the wheel (e.g. speeding, texting and driving, running a traffic light, disregarding road signs, driving on the wrong side of the road, etc.). That being said, an accident that claims the life of another, while tragic, does not automatically imply that anyone involved will be legally at fault or charged with a crime.
If you find yourself facing a vehicular manslaughter charge, you’ll want to contact legal representation as soon as possible. These are serious charges and they require the assistance of an experienced lawyer who can research the facts of the case and present you with options and professional legal advice.