Motorists who injure or attempt to injure another person while driving irresponsibly or aggressively can face serious criminal charges. In many states, a driver can be charged with "vehicular assault" for injuring another with a vehicle intentionally or as the result of being inattentive, reckless, or impaired at the wheel. In some circumstances, a vehicular assault conviction can lead to years in prison, thousands of dollars in fines, and driver's license revocation. This article outlines the offense of vehicular assault and the possible penalties for a conviction.
Definitions of vehicular assault vary by state. However, the offense typically covers any criminal action of injuring another person with a vehicle. In some states, vehicular assault also includes attempting to injure another person with a motor vehicle.
Pure accidents generally aren't within either of these categories. To be a criminal action, the driver normally must have been doing something that was at least grossly negligent—something that an ordinary reasonable person could know is dangerous or threatening to another.
Some states don't use the term "vehicular assault" at all. The conduct (criminally injuring or attempting to injure another with a vehicle) is still illegal—these states just use different names for the offense such as "negligent vehicular injury."
Vehicular assault laws basically borrow concepts from the more general criminal laws that make assaults and batteries illegal. In fact, rather than having laws that specifically apply only to vehicle-related offenses, some states just use the more general assault and battery statutes.
In many states, a driver commits vehicular assault only if he or she causes injuries to another person. But, traditionally, assault is defined as intentionally placing another person in the reasonable apprehension of immediate bodily harm. In other words, a person can be convicted of assault without actually causing injury.
For example, a driver who gets angry and intentionally swerves at or towards another car, nearly causing a collision, could be convicted of assault.
Battery is normally defined as making any unlawful physical contact with another person. Hitting someone with a car would definitely qualify. Generally, to be guilty of battery, a person must have acted intentionally or at least with gross negligence. As with vehicular assault, pure accidents generally don't qualify as batteries.
The penalties you'll face for a vehicle assault conviction vary greatly depending on the circumstances. But, generally, the factors that affect the severity of the penalties are the seriousness of injuries caused and the degree of the driver's culpability.
Where a driver acts with gross negligence and the injuries aren't serious, vehicular assault is usually a misdemeanor.
Misdemeanors generally carry a maximum of one year in jail and up to a few thousand dollars in fines. The convicted driver might also face license suspension for up to six months or a year.
Oftentimes, vehicular assault is classified as a felony if the offender acted intentionally or with recklessness or a person was seriously injured. Recklessness is considered a more culpable mental state than gross negligence and generally requires proof that the driver knew their conduct posed a substantial danger to others. In some states, a felony offense is called "felony vehicular assault."
Felonies generally carry a minimum of one year in prison and $1,000 to $100,000 in fines. For a felony vehicular assault conviction, the driver might also face a long period of license suspension or revocation. In more serious cases, the driver could even be looking at permanent license revocation.
In many states, driving under the influence (DUI) is a felony where the offense involves injuries to another person. DUI vehicular assault is typically a strict liability offense (meaning no intent to commit a crime is needed).
As with other types of felony vehicular assault, a DUI-related offense generally carries at least a year in jail, thousands of dollars in fines, and a substantial period of license suspension or revocation.
When a vehicular assault-type offense results in the death of another person, the driver can typically be charged with vehicular homicide.
In some situations, the penalties for vehicular homicide can be substantially more severe than those for vehicular assault convictions.