Car accidents that involve fatalities don't always result in criminal charges. However, if the driver of one of the vehicles was negligent, reckless, or under the influence of drugs or alcohol, they'll likely be charged with vehicular manslaughter or homicide. Depending on the circumstances, vehicular manslaughter or homicide can be a misdemeanor or a felony criminal offense. This article discusses these types of charges for driving-related killings, including how the offenses are defined and the penalties that they carry.
Most states have homicide (unlawful killing) laws that specifically apply to causing the death of another person while driving a motor vehicle. However, in a few states (like Maine), there aren't laws that apply only to driving-related killings. In these states, prosecutors must use the more general homicide laws (manslaughter and murder statutes) that apply to all types of unlawful killings for charging homicides caused by drivers.
Generally, "vehicular homicide" and "vehicular manslaughter" are just different names for the same offense. State laws tend to use one term or the other rather than both.
However, in a few states, the two terms are used to describe two different crimes. For example, in Nevada, vehicular manslaughter is a misdemeanor, whereas vehicular homicide is a more serious DUI-related killing that's classified as a felony.
In keeping with the general trend, we use the two terms synonymously in this article.
Each state has its own set of laws. So definitions of vehicular homicide and manslaughter differ by state. But, generally, all crimes are composed of two basic parts: an act and a mental state. In its simplest form, the two components of vehicular manslaughter are:
Let's take a closer look at these two elements because there are lots of variations and nuances.
Vehicular manslaughter and homicide always involve the death of another person while driving a vehicle. But certain circumstances related to this act can make the offense more serious.
The most common aggravating circumstance is the driver being under the influence of drugs or alcohol. For example, in Alabama, vehicular homicide is generally a class A misdemeanor. But if the driver was under the influence when the killing occurred, the offense is a class C felony.
Other aggravating circumstances that can increase the penalties for vehicular manslaughter in some states include there being more than one victim, the victim being an on-duty police officer, the driver having a suspended license when the offense occurred, and the offense taking place in a school crossing or construction zone.
The driver's mental also plays an important part in determining the seriousness of a vehicular manslaughter offense. In most states, the severity of the penalties for a vehicular manslaughter conviction depend on the culpability level of the driver's mental state. The laws of each state are different, but some of the more common mental states that determine penalties include:
Not all states have three categories of vehicular manslaughter offenses based on these mental state categories. However, the laws of most states utilize one of more of these mental state definitions in some way to define vehicular manslaughter and set the penalties for vehicular manslaughter convictions.
The specific circumstances of a vehicular manslaughter offense determine the possible penalties that a conviction carries. Generally, states laws specify penalty ranges for different categories of vehicular homicide. The categories are normally based on the factors previously discussed related to the specifics of the offense and the mental state of the offender.
As a misdemeanor, vehicular manslaughter will typically result in up to six months or a year in jail, fines that usually top out around $1,000, and license suspension of up to a year or so.
However, felony penalties can be much more severe. Drivers convicted of felony vehicular manslaughter might face several years or more in prison, thousands of dollars in fines, and, in many cases, permanent license revocation. The most serious types of vehicular manslaughter can result in the offender spending life in prison.