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.

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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 were acting negligently by running through a red light, speeding, or making an illegal turn and killing someone, they would likely be charged with misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter.

On the other hand, if someone is operating their vehicle in a grossly negligent manner and someone ends up dying 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 fault, while the other party is 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. As far as determining who is an essential factor, there is case law and jury instructions. 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 are doing.

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.

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. Please do not waste any time and contact our law firm. Our main office is located in Encino, California.