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Understanding California’s Vehicular Manslaughter Law and Penalties

Understanding California’s Vehicular Manslaughter Law and Penalties

Vehicular manslaughter in California is a crime that occurs when someone, while operating a vehicle, causes the death of another person. The individual did not act with the intent to kill. Instead, they engaged in lawful or unlawful conduct that demonstrated behavior below how a reasonable person would have acted. The Penal Code defines three instances when vehicular manslaughter is committed: when the person acts with gross negligence, ordinary negligence, or to commit insurance fraud. Depending on the facts, the offense can be charged as a misdemeanor or felony, with penalties ranging from not more than 1 year in county jail to a maximum of 10 years.

If you are facing violent crime charges in Santa Rosa, contact the Law Offices of Evan E. Zelig, P.C. at (707) 418-5352 to discuss your case.

The Elements the Prosecutor Must Prove for a Conviction

As with any other crime, when someone is accused of vehicular manslaughter, the prosecutor must prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt to obtain a conviction. They must demonstrate that the defendant violated each element of the offense. If they cannot do so, the judge or jury should not convict the defendant.

Under California Penal Code § 192(c), the elements of vehicular manslaughter include the following:

  • A person was operating a vehicle.
  • The individual committed a misdemeanor or infraction, a lawful act likely to produce death, or an intentional accident to submit a false or fraudulent insurance claim.
  • Under the circumstances, the defendant’s actions were dangerous to others.
  • The act was the proximate cause of another person’s death.

An act is the proximate cause of a person’s death if the loss of life would not have occurred without it happening. To clarify, if someone was texting while driving and collided with a pedestrian crossing the street because the driver was not looking, their behavior may be considered the direct and natural consequence of the pedestrian’s death. Additionally, when determining whether an act was the proximate cause, the trier of fact must decide whether a reasonable person would have known that certain conduct was likely to harm someone else.

Acting with Ordinary Negligence, Gross Negligence, or for Financial Gain

The vehicular manslaughter statute says that the individual charged must have acted without malice, meaning that it was not the person’s will to do something cruel to another human being.

Instead, the individual must have acted with any of the following:

  • Ordinary negligence: The individual did something that a reasonable person would not have done under similar circumstances. They did not use the expected level of caution to prevent foreseeable harm.
  • Gross negligence: This is more than just carelessness or inattentiveness. It’s engaging in conduct likely to produce death or great bodily injury. A reasonable person would have known that the act could lead to such consequences.
  • A desire to benefit financially: The person purposely caused an accident to file a false or fake insurance claim. They did so for financial gain.

The Levels of Charges for Vehicular Manslaughter

In California, vehicular manslaughter can be charged as a misdemeanor or a felony. The level is determined by several factors, primarily the acts involved.

If a person acted with ordinary negligence, vehicular manslaughter is a misdemeanor. The possible punishments include confinement in the county jail for not more than 1 year and/or a fine of up to $1,000.

A violation involving gross negligence is a wobbler – an offense that can be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony. The prosecutor will examine the facts to determine how to proceed. Typically, they will look at the defendant's conduct –how serious was it? Additionally, they may consider the defendant’s criminal history – have they been arrested for or charged with any other crimes before?

If the prosecutor decides to file misdemeanor charges, the defendant faces a maximum of 1 year in county jail and a fine of not more than $1,000. If they determine that the offense was severe, they could pursue felony charges. In that case, the potential penalties include imprisonment for 2, 4, or 6 years and/or a fine of up to $10,000.

In a situation where the defendant caused the fatal accident to commit insurance fraud, vehicular manslaughter is a straight felony. The defendant could be punished by 4, 6, or 10 years in prison and fined up to $10,000.

Schedule a Case Consultation Today

Whether pursued as a misdemeanor or felony, vehicular manslaughter charges are serious. Your future and freedom are on the line. Still, you have options for fighting the allegations against you. A criminal defense lawyer can review your case and develop a legal strategy tailored to your situation.

At the Law Offices of Evan E. Zelig, P.C., we zealously advocate for our clients in Santa Rosa. Call us at (707) 418-5352 or contact us online today.