Vehicular Manslaughter Law in California - Penal Code 192(c)
In the 25 years I have been practicing criminal defense, I have defended many clients for vehicular manslaughter-related offenses, described under California Penal Code Section 192(c). When a person is driving a car and death occurs because of their actions, the prosecutors have several choices about what type of charges they can file on the case.
They can file the case as an involuntary manslaughter offense, vehicular manslaughter, or even second-degree murder. The differences between these charges are significant. However, the elements of each crime are pretty murky compared to each other.
The fact that a particular area of law is confusing is a recipe for prosecutors to abuse their discretion and improperly harshly file cases. This is why having a battle-tested criminal defense attorney in school in this area of the law is essential. If your attorney does not know how to maneuver this area of law, you will be dead in the water. I have seen the police, prosecutors, and judges try and misfile ridiculous charges against defendants that put them in a horrible position and face many years in prison. It takes know-how, guts, and a passion for doing what is right to combat this practice.
What Is Vehicular Manslaughter Under State Law?
Under California state law, Penal Code 192(c), if the driver of a vehicle becomes involved in an accident with another car, pedestrian, or bicyclist, and if it can be shown that the driver was criminally negligent, then they would be charged with vehicular manslaughter. For example, if a death occurred due to a driver's gross negligence, disregard for human life, or decision to drive recklessly, then a vehicular manslaughter charge would be brought.
The nature of the exact charge will depend on the circumstances of the case. For example, if someone acted negligently by running through a red light, speeding, or making an illegal turn and killing someone, they would likely be charged with vehicular manslaughter.
On the other hand, if someone is operating their vehicle in a grossly negligent manner and someone dies because of that, they will be charged with felony vehicular manslaughter. There is a vast difference between those charges because the punishments are more significant for felony vehicular manslaughter.
Many of these determinations are difficult because someone has died, and causation is always an issue. For example, if someone hit another person in oncoming traffic, but the person who was killed was doing something negligent, such as not paying attention to the road, why should the surviving party be held responsible?
The issue of causation comes up frequently in vehicular manslaughter cases. This is why it is essential to have a defense attorney who has experience handling these cases, knows the prosecutors, and knows how to achieve the best outcome.
Type Of Driving for Vehicular Manslaughter Charges
The type of driving that typically results in vehicular manslaughter charges is characterized as grossly negligent. Of course, defining gross negligence is sometimes a nebulous and challenging process. Often, a jury must be empaneled to decide whether or not a particular act should be defined as grossly negligent.
The jurors would listen to the evidence on both sides, determine what precisely gross negligence is, and decide whether to charge the defendant with vehicular manslaughter, involuntary manslaughter, ordinary negligence, or nothing at all.
The bottom line is this: if a person is racing through the San Fernando Valley and someone dies due to that, they will be charged with vehicular manslaughter. Driving recklessly or behaving in a way that surpasses an average level of negligence will result in a vehicular manslaughter charge. It is understood that people make mistakes while driving and that accidents occur. Still, when a person decides to move with reckless abandon and disregard for other people on the road, they will be held responsible if a death occurs.
Other Drivers Sharing Some Responsibility
In a typical civil case with contributory negligence, meaning that one party shares some responsibility, a percentage of the fault will be apportioned to each party. For example, one party may be apportioned 70 percent of the spot while another may be apportioned 30 percent.
In criminal cases, determining who was at fault becomes a causation issue, meaning it must be determined who caused the accident and who caused a person to lose their life. Sometimes an act of vehicular manslaughter will have multiple causes. When there are numerous causes, it will have to be determined which was a substantial factor in the party's death, and whoever caused a critical factor will be held responsible.
So, if the defendant was a substantial factor in the case, they would be held responsible for the death and could be charged with vehicular manslaughter. There are case law and jury instructions to determine who is an essential factor. Still, it will have to be asked whether the person's death could have been avoided if not for someone's action. This requires a seasoned attorney who has handled vehicular manslaughter cases before and knows what they do.
Intoxication in Vehicular Manslaughter Cases
Over the last 26 years, I've handled hundreds of vehicular manslaughter-related offenses, especially in the San Fernando Valley, where my office is based in Encino. There are so many people jammed in the Valley, just like Los Angeles, that many accidents occur. California Penal Code 192(c) defines the crime of vehicular manslaughter.
When you start talking about vehicular manslaughter, the prosecutors are going to argue that somebody did something reckless, grossly negligent, or showed wanton disregard for human life. So, you see cases of vehicular manslaughter filed where people are going fast — 100 miles an hour on a surface street would be an example. Somebody dies, and now that person will be charged with vehicular manslaughter.
Other cases you see springing out are where somebody is intoxicated (CALCRIM 591). Either they have alcohol or drugs or prescription medication — they do something on the road that's dangerous and end up killing another person.
So, these are where I see vehicular manslaughter cases springing out in Los Angeles, and they're severe cases because you have died, and now they're looking for somebody to blame.
I've even seen cases where it was just a complete accident, and somebody died. They don't usually charge that particular scenario as vehicular manslaughter. They'll usually charge involuntary manslaughter as a misdemeanor (CALCRIM 593). If you're charged with vehicular manslaughter, and somebody passes away, you're looking at a felony conviction. You're looking at a significant time in custody.
You're looking at a loss of your driving privileges potentially. So, these are severe charges. Not to mention the back-end of it, where if you get a conviction for vehicular manslaughter, you're probably going to be sued civilly by the party, and they're going to try to claim that you killed their loved one.
Some of the family might get involved and sue you civilly, and you're also going to be looking at restitution in the case. In other words, if you're held responsible for the death in a vehicular manslaughter case, you're going to have to pay for any money anybody lost based on your particular actions. For example, funeral costs which could be pretty expensive — could be your responsibility if you're held responsible for an accident where somebody passed away.
How Can Prosecutors Prove Murder?
To achieve a conviction for murder when driving a car and killing someone, the prosecutors must show that the driver appreciated the risk of their actions and acted with wanton disregard for human life. This means that the driver must have displayed a depraved heart in their efforts toward a society in general and the person they killed. This definition is not easy to define or explain, so it comes down to what the jury thinks is the right thing to do based on what happened and the defendant's actions.
This is a dangerous situation. Results are unpredictable and can end in disaster for the criminal defendant. An example of a murder case is when the driver involved has a prior DUI on their record and is told explicitly if they continue to drive with alcohol in their system. If someone is killed due to their actions, they will be charged with murder for the death (by the way, the courts do this in every DUI in the San Fernando Valley).
This is a delicate and fair example of when the prosecutor can charge a person with murder because they were explicitly warned and told what would happen if they did it again. However, if the person does not have a prior DUI and drinks alcohol and drives, they too could be charged with murder.
The case's facts will usually dictate whether the prosecutors will be successful. For example, the prosecutors can argue that who does not know that it is dangerous to drink alcohol and drive in today's day and age? If the jury agrees, they may be able to run at this person for a murder charge.
Ability to Safely Operate a Motor Vehicle
There are a lot of accidents and a lot of deaths in the San Fernando Valley. When deciding what to file if a death has occurred in a traffic accident, the prosecutors look at why the accident happened. In California, vehicular manslaughter charges are defined under Penal Code 192(c).
Often, that's not such an easy thing to answer. Sometimes they have to get an accident reconstruction expert to figure it out. As a defense attorney, when it comes to these vehicular manslaughter cases in California, vehicular manslaughter cases will get my accident reconstruction expert to show that it wasn't my client's fault that the accident occurred.
It is never an easy decision to handle these cases because if the person was using any substance that affected their ability to operate a motor vehicle safely. Then, the risk that the prosecutors will charge an attempted murder case or a murder case, and they will be looking at spending the rest of their life in prison.
It looks like when you're talking about a death on the road when someone has either used alcohol, marijuana, prescription medication, or some other illegal drug. The police argue that they could not safely operate a motor vehicle.
So, if you or a loved one is charged with vehicular manslaughter, you've come to the right place. I've handled hundreds of these cases over the last 26 years. I know what it takes to get a successful result, and I know what it takes to defend you properly.
Murder Charges Under Penal Code 187
One of the most significant issues in these cases is that the prosecutors, sometimes taking a substance, have a lot of power because they can charge that murder charge. For a second degree, you're looking at 15 to live. Now, when they also set the alternate account of vehicular manslaughter, that looks pretty good to someone looking at a lot of time in prison.
Sometimes they file these cases fairly, but sometimes they're filed unfairly. If they're unfairly filed, that doesn't mean they will get overturned. You need your defense attorney, somebody like me, who has worked for a judge, who's worked for the prosecutors, and who has defended people just like you since 1994, to get involved.
When Will Prosecutors File Vehicular Manslaughter Charges?
For a vehicular manslaughter charge, the prosecutors must prove that the defendant acted with gross negligence and that a death occurred, different from ordinary negligence. The legislature or courts have clearly not defined the difference between gross negligence and a wanton disregard for human life.
I have seen cases being filed with either charge at the whim of the prosecutors. This is why it is so important to have a DUI attorney who can fight for you when you are improperly charged or adequately charged, but the prosecutors want to send you to prison for a long time.
Usually, where you see vehicular manslaughter cases being filed is when there is no alcohol or drugs involved, someone is driving recklessly, and death occurs. The prosecutors usually do not feel a murder charge is warranted in this scenario.
However, I have seen several cases recently charged with murder when there is no alcohol involved, and the person must defend themselves for their literal life. If the jury is angered enough by the defendant's actions that caused the death of a poor innocent person, then they can send a message to the defendant with a guilty verdict for murder.
The types of conduct that warrant a murder charge versus a vehicular manslaughter charge, even where no alcohol or drugs are in the person's system, relate to whether the driver knew or reasonably should have known that their actions may cause death.
The more likely a reasonable person could foresee that their actions could cause death, the more likely the prosecutors will file murder instead of vehicular manslaughter charges. When a death occurs due to drunk driving, reckless driving, speeding, gross negligence, or a hit and run, you may be charged with vehicular manslaughter.
What Are the Penalties for Penal Code 192(c)?
The crime may be charged either as a felony or a misdemeanor. If charged with a misdemeanor, the penalties include up to 1 year in jail, and if it is charged as a felony, you could be facing an even longer term of up to ten years in state prison.
You will also face hefty fines, probation, driver's license suspension, driving school, and community service. In some cases, a vehicular manslaughter charge may be elevated to a murder charge, and as criminal defense lawyers, we do everything we can to prevent that from ever happening.
Can A Non-Driver Be Charged With Vehicular Manslaughter?
A person usually has to have been the driver of a vehicle to be charged with vehicular manslaughter under California Penal Code 192(c). If someone were to drop a huge boulder over the freeway overpass, causing several cars to crash and someone to die, then that person would be held responsible. Theories related to vehicular manslaughter would be used to charge them.
Suppose an act is not under the vehicular manslaughter vehicle code section. In that case, there are other penal codes or vehicle code sections that the prosecutors will use to hold them responsible for the death.
There are many penalties for a conviction of vehicular manslaughter in California. First, however, the prosecutors will have to decide whether they are dealing with a case in which probation is warranted.
They will be looking anywhere from no time in jail to 365 days in prison if they are. If it is a felony vehicular manslaughter case, the person could face up to six years in prison. Due to the current state of overcrowding in LA County, it would be questionable whether someone would serve that time in the county jail.
What Are the Defenses Of Vehicular Manslaughter Charges?
One possible defense to vehicular manslaughter charges is that the defendant did not cause the accident. In other words, even though they might have been doing something reckless, someone else was acting recklessly, and that party caused the accident.
Another defense is that the party who died caused their death by operating their motor vehicle. When it comes to reasons for vehicular manslaughter, the attorney, prosecutor, and judge will have to look at the surrounding circumstances to determine who is responsible, who is at fault, and who is a substantial factor. Juries can resolve many of these cases when there is an argument between the defense and prosecution about who is responsible for a death.
We have defended many clients involved in vehicular manslaughter charges at the Hedding Law Firm, and we have achieved excellent results. Our persistence and dedication guarantee competent and effective representation. We handle criminal cases in all Los Angeles County and San Fernando Valley Criminal Courts.
We strongly believe that you are innocent until proven guilty. We will attempt to protect your freedom and your legal rights. in some situations, we may even be able to have your charges lowered or dismissed entirely. Does your vehicular manslaughter charge involve alcohol? No need to worry; we are known as the DUI Kings.
Seeking Reduced Charges for Vehicular Manslaughter
A lawyer who will fight for your rights, using accident reconstruction if necessary, do the preliminary hearing, and challenge the prosecution's evidence if necessary — whatever it takes to get the best result for you if you're charged with vehicular manslaughter in the San Fernando Valley.
Another potential charge besides second-degree murder and vehicular manslaughter is involuntary manslaughter. This can be a misdemeanor. It's a lot less of a severe charge than vehicular manslaughter. The difference between these cases and vehicular manslaughter cases is simple negligence.
This means somebody committed some simple traffic violation, and death occurred. If you ran a red light, or maybe you made a left turn in front of somebody coming through a green light. These simple traffic infractions that result in death can also be charged, and they shouldn't be trusted as vehicular manslaughter.
Sometimes they shouldn't be charged with involuntary manslaughter, but to have any chance of having their rights, reputation, and future protected. You need a champion and warrior-like to defend you when charged with vehicular manslaughter in California.
Fighting PC 192(c) Vehicular Manslaughter Charges
These cases are tricky because sometimes you can't tell who caused the accident. In that case, the defense might argue that someone else caused the person to die, or maybe they caused themselves to die. Sometimes people are driving crazy, and they end up crashing into somebody else who might be intoxicated. The drunk person didn't have anything to do with the accident, except the other party hit them.
However, there is a presumption in the law regarding these vehicular manslaughter cases that if you were intoxicated and you got in an accident, it's presumed that you're the one responsible for the accident.
So, I often find myself arguing in these cases that my client is not responsible. Somebody else is reliable, and I have to try to rebut that presumption to prove that my client didn't cause the accident — that either someone else caused the person's death or the person caused the death.
Then you get into the argument of whether there are two different causes of death. Then the issue becomes which one of those causes was a substantial factor.
In every single cause — and there could be one, two, three, four, five causes of an accident, but every case determined to be a substantial factor, either by a judge or by a jury, is going to be responsible for that accident criminally. So, you get a little taste there of how complicated some of these vehicular manslaughter cases can be.
So, you're going to need someone like me who's been doing this for 26 years, who's battled these vehicular manslaughter cases and knows how to defend them and negotiate them. If they've got a case against you — you've done something wrong — you'll want your defense attorney there to do damage control, mitigate the circumstances, and get you out of the criminal justice system as fast as possible.