Vehicular Homicide: What Happens When You Cause Another’s Person Death in a Car Accident

Criminal charges and penalties you could face if you kills someone in a traffic accident and are convicted of vehicular manslaughter or vehicular homicide.

By , Attorney · University of San Francisco School of Law

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.

Vehicular Homicide and Vehicular Manslaughter Laws

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.

Differences Between Vehicular Manslaughter and Vehicular Homicide

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.

How Vehicular Homicide and Manslaughter Are Defined

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:

  • Act. Causing the death of another person while operating a vehicle, and
  • Mental state. Acting with negligence, recklessness, gross indifference to human life, or some other mental state specified by the statute.

Let's take a closer look at these two elements because there are lots of variations and nuances.

More on the Act of Vehicular Manslaughter

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.

More on the Mental State of Vehicular Manslaughter

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:

  • Negligence. To be convicted of vehicular manslaughter, a driver generally must have been at least negligent. Basically, acting with negligence is failing to exercise the degree of care that a reasonable person would under like circumstances. If someone is killed in a car accident, but no one acted in a negligent manner to cause the death, it's a pure accident and no crime has been committed. Typically, negligent vehicular homicides are misdemeanors and carry the least severe penalties of vehicular homicide offenses (though factors such as those mentioned above, like being under the influence, can make the offense more serious). Examples of negligence could include things like driving an unsafe speed, texting while driving, and following another vehicle too closely.
  • Recklessness. The next step up the ladder in terms of culpable mental states is typically recklessness. Generally, recklessness is defined as something like knowingly doing or failing to do something that creates a substantial and unjustifiable risk to others. In other words, the driver is aware that their conduct is dangerous but goes ahead and does it anyway. Reckless vehicular manslaughter is generally a felony. Examples of recklessness could include things such as excessive speeding through a school zone, knowingly blowing through a stop sign, and street racing in a residential neighborhood.
  • Gross or extreme indifference to human life. In terms of mental state, the most serious type of vehicular homicide involves the driver acting with gross or extreme indifference to human life. In other words, the driver is aware that their actions pose a substantial danger to the lives of others. In reality, the difference between gross indifference and recklessness is a matter of degree—an issue that the judge or jury is tasked with deciding. The more egregious the circumstances of the case, the more likely the judge or jury is to find the driver acted with gross or extreme indifference to human life. Vehicular manslaughter committed with gross or extreme indifference to human life is generally a felony and penalized more severely than reckless vehicular homicide. In some states, this offense is considered second-degree murder.

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.

Penalties for Vehicular Manslaughter and Homicide 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.