Vehicular Manslaughter While Intoxicated in California
Gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated is a serious DUI offense in California. If law enforcement officers arrest you after a DUI accident resulting in death, contact a Southern California DUI lawyer immediately for a free consultation. Talking to the police or a prosecutor without legal representation could hurt your DUI defense.
This article explains gross vehicular manslaughter in California. In addition, we discuss potential sentences for gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated in California and the possible defenses a DUI attorney might use to fight the charges.
What is Gross Vehicular Manslaughter While Intoxicated According to California Penal Code 191.5(A)?
The criminal offense known as gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated is defined within California Penal Code §191.5(a). The statute states that gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated is:
- Unlawfully killing another person;
- Without implied or express malice (malice aforethought);
- While driving a vehicle in violation of California Vehicle Code Sections 23153, 23152, or 23140, AND;
- The death was the caused by committing the unlawful act, but was not a felonious act with gross negligence; OR
- Committing a lawful act in an unlawful manner and with gross negligence that could result in the death of another individual.
The statute can be very confusing and difficult to understand when reading at first glance. However, the legal definition of gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated in California can be more easily understood when it’s broken down. So let’s explain what the statute means in non-legal terms.
Gross Vehicular Manslaughter While Intoxicated “Explained”
The criminal offense of gross vehicular manslaughter occurs when you kill someone while driving under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs. You do not need to intend to kill someone to be charged with this crime. Instead, all that is required is you take another life while committing a grossly negligent unlawful act—such as drunk driving. The unlawful act itself does not need to be a felony.
Additionally, you can still be charged with gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated if your conduct is lawful. Still, the conduct could result in another person’s death in an unlawful manner and with gross negligence.
How Does the Prosecutor Prove Gross DUI Manslaughter Under PC 191.5(a) Was Violated?
According to the Penal Code and the Judicial Council of California Criminal Jury Instructions, in order for the prosecutor to prove gross DUI manslaughter, they must demonstrate:
- You were operating a motor vehicle with a blood alcohol concentration (“BAC”) above the legal limit, OR you were under the influence of drugs or alcohol;
- While you were driving the vehicle under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs, you committed a misdemeanor offense or infraction, OR you committed a lawful act that could cause death;
- The misdemeanor, infraction, or lawful action that could cause death was committed with gross negligence; AND
- Your gross negligence resulted in killing another individual.
The legal limit for most drivers in California is a BAC of .08% or higher. However, persons driving a commercial motor vehicle or a vehicle for hire have a lower legal limit of .04% or higher. Additionally, it is unlawful for underage drivers to operate a motor vehicle with a BAC of .01% or higher under California Vehicle Code §23136 or a BAC of .05% or higher under California Vehicle Code §23140.
What Is an Example of Gross DUI Manslaughter According to California Penal Code Section 191.5(a)?
A key legal element for the prosecution to prove is that your grossly negligent conduct caused the person’s death. In legal terms, gross negligence has been defined as reckless conduct that demonstrates a lack of care for the safety of other people. The recklessness and lack of care are so great that the conduct appears to be a conscious violation of the rights of other individuals.
The California Jury Instructions explain gross negligence as a lack of any care or an extreme departure from conduct that a reasonably cautious individual would do in the same situation to prevent harm to themselves or another person. Grossly negligent conduct can be an act or a failure to act.
The legal elements of negligence, which must all be demonstrated by a prosecutor, are:
- A duty of care owed by the defendant towards the party harmed;
- A breach of this duty by the defendant;
- Causation of the harmed party’s injuries by the defendant as a direct effect from the defendant’s actions; and
The state must prove that your conduct was negligent. Then, the prosecution must prove that your conduct was “extreme” to justify gross negligence. Examples of gross negligence for DUI manslaughter could include driving a vehicle under the influence of alcohol or drugs and causing an accident while:
- Driving at excessive speeds (i.e., 90 mph);
- Driving on the sidewalk;
- Driving in the wrong direction; or
- Repeatedly ignoring traffic laws.
In each of the above examples, a reasonable person would know that doing these things could create an unreasonable risk of death. It is important to note that the person must be intoxicated and must cause a traffic accident for the state to charge the person with a criminal offense under PC §191.5(a).
Gross negligence is the complete disregard for the safety of other people. If your conduct does not meet the definition of gross negligence, you cannot be convicted under this statute. However, that does not mean you escape punishment for causing a DUI accident which results in death. There are several vehicular manslaughter charges or murder charges that the state could use to prosecute you after a DUI accident involving death.
What Are My Chances of Beating a Gross Vehicular Manslaughter DUI Charge in California?
If you represent yourself, your chances of beating a gross vehicular manslaughter DUI charge are much lower than if you hire an experienced Orange County DUI attorney. A California DUI defense lawyer understands the legal elements of the criminal charges. In addition, an attorney understands the potential DUI defenses and how to challenge the state’s evidence alleging your actions amounted to gross negligence.
Your best chance of beating charges of gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated in California is to hire an experienced DUI lawyer as soon as possible after the police arrest you for drunk driving.
Related Charges to Gross Vehicular Manslaughter While Intoxicated Charges
The state could charge you with one or more related offenses if the prosecutor does not think they can prove your actions amounted to gross negligence. Other similar offenses to gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated include:
- Vehicular Manslaughter While Intoxicated (PC §191.5(b));
- DUI Causing Injury (VC §23153);
- Vehicular Manslaughter (PC §192(c)); and
- DUI murder or Watson Murder (PC §187).
The language in California Penal Code §191.5(b) is the same as gross vehicular manslaughter, except that the charge involves ordinary negligence. Vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated is often used in DUI plea bargains as a charge reduction. The penalties are lesser than the penalties for gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated. Since it is a wobbler offense, a California DUI attorney might negotiate a DUI plea deal to reduce the charges to a misdemeanor which would only carry up to one year in county jail.
Legal Defenses to a Charge of Gross Vehicular Manslaughter While Intoxicated: How to Fight Gross DUI Manslaughter Charges Under PC 191.5?
There are several sound legal defenses to a charge of gross DUI manslaughter. The facts and circumstances of the case determine the type of defense strategy your California DUI defense lawyer chooses. There are several defenses that could be applied to fight gross DUI Manslaughter charges under California penal Code 191.5. Potential defenses to gross DUI manslaughter charges include:
Insufficient Evidence of Intoxication
Your DUI defense attorney may use one or more standard DUI defenses to argue that you were not intoxicated at the time of the accident. These DUI defenses might include:
- Challenging the chemical test results because of violations of California Title 17 governing the collection, testing, and storing of blood, urine, or breath samples;
- Challenging the validity of the chemical test because of errors made by police officers or health conditions that could result in falsely high BAC levels;
- Alleging that rising alcohol levels and residual mouth alcohol caused the high BAC levels;
- Claiming the BAC levels were inaccurate because of a health condition or environmental factors;
- Offering a simple explanation for why the officer thought you exhibited signs of intoxication, such as a health condition, fatigue, shock from the accident, etc.; and
- Raising allegations of police misconduct in the accident investigation and DUI arrest.
A DUI lawyer might use other DUI defenses as well, depending on the facts of your case. A DUI defense attorney investigates the arrest and analyzes the state’s evidence to determine potential defenses.
You Weren’t Driving Under the Influence of Alcohol or Drugs
If you did not take a chemical test, the prosecution must prove that you were driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Driving under the influence means your driving ability was impaired by alcohol or drugs in your system.
First, your attorney attacks the state’s assertion that you had alcohol or drugs in your system because it does not have a BAC test to prove the allegation. Second, your lawyer might attack the police officer’s observations and statements by witnesses that you were “acting” intoxicated or showed signs of alcohol or drug use.
You Weren’t Demonstrating Gross Negligence
Your behavior and conduct did not amount to gross negligence. Your attorney might argue that you were negligent, but your conduct amounted to ordinary negligence. Therefore, you cannot be convicted according to California Penal Code §191.5(a). However, the prosecution could reduce the charges to vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated under PC §191.5(b). As discussed above, the penalties are much less severe under PC 191(b).
You Weren’t Responsible for the Victim’s Death
Your gross negligence must result in the other person’s death to be guilty of gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated. The traffic accident might not have been your fault. The other driver or another party could have caused the accident. Even though your conduct was grossly negligent, it did not result in the person’s death. Therefore, you are not guilty of gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated.
You Faced Imminent Peril
Was there an emergency that caused you to drive while impaired and act as you did? If an ordinary reasonable person would act in the same way, you would not be guilty of gross negligence.
Gross Vehicular Manslaughter While Intoxicated Sentencing and Penalties: What Are the Legal Penalties for Gross DUI Manslaughter?
Gross DUI manslaughter convictions carry severe criminal penalties. A conviction under PC §191.5(a) typically results in:
- A state prison sentence of four, six, or ten years;
- Felony (formal) probation; and
- Fines of up to $10,000.
However, your sentence is harsher if you have one or more prior convictions on your criminal record for vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated (ordinary, gross, or while operating a boat), DUI offenses, or DUI causing injury. You could face up to 15 years to life in prison for a conviction of gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated in California.
Gross Vehicular Manslaughter While Intoxicated FAQs
Below are answers to frequently asked questions (“FAQs”) about gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated in California.
Will I Lose My Driver’s License if I Am Convicted Under PC 191.5(a)?
Yes, you lose your driving privileges for a conviction of gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated. The California Department of Motor Vehicles (“DMV”) revokes your driver’s license for at least three years.
You face additional charges and penalties if you operate a motor vehicle with a revoked driver’s license.
Before you can drive again, you must complete all terms of your DUI sentence. After that, you must apply to reinstate your driver’s license with the DMV, including paying fines, reinstatement fees, and providing proof of required insurance.
Is Gross DUI Manslaughter Under PC 191.5 a strike?
A conviction of gross DUI manslaughter is a serious felony offense. Therefore, it counts as a strike under California’s Three Strikes Law. The law significantly enhances the penalties for a third strike.
If you have two strikes against you when you are convicted of gross DUI manslaughter charges, the judge could sentence you to 25 years to life in prison. Therefore, it is crucial that you contact a California DUI attorney immediately to discuss ways to fight DUI charges when you have prior strikes on your record.
What Is the Sentence for DUI Vehicular Manslaughter in California?
With a conviction of gross DUI vehicular manslaughter, you face up to 10 years in prison. If you have past DUI convictions, your prison sentence increases to 15 years to life. In addition, if people were injured in the DUI crash but survived, you also face an additional three to six years in prison per victim who suffered great bodily injury.
If you plead down to DUI vehicular manslaughter under PC §191.5(b), the penalty for a misdemeanor offense is up to one year in county jail. If you are charged with felony DUI vehicular manslaughter, you could serve up to four years in state prison. However, the same rule applies if there are survivors who suffer great bodily injury, so the prison sentence could be longer.
If this conviction is your third strike, the sentence is 25 years to life in prison under California’s Three Strikes Law.
What Is the Difference Between Gross Vehicular Manslaughter and Vehicular Manslaughter?
The language in the Penal Code is the same for both DUI offenses. However, gross vehicular manslaughter requires that the state prove your conduct rose to the level of gross negligence. If the state cannot prove gross negligence, the prosecutor might try to prove ordinary negligence for DUI vehicular manslaughter or charge you with another DUI offense.
What’s the Penalty for Vehicular Homicide in California?
Officers charge you with vehicular manslaughter or vehicular homicide under Penal Code §192(c). A person is guilty of this criminal offense if they cause another person’s death while operating a vehicle in a negligent or unlawful manner. A prosecutor might choose this charge if the evidence is not strong enough to prove DUI vehicular manslaughter or DUI murder charges.
The penalties for vehicular homicide or vehicular manslaughter under this code section depend on the exact charges and the facts of the case. If you are charged with vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence as a misdemeanor, you face up to one year in jail, a $1,000 fine, and one year of summary probation. However, if the state proves felony vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence, the punishment increases to a state prison sentence of up to six years, a fine of up to $10,000, and formal probation.
A misdemeanor charge of vehicular manslaughter without gross negligence carries a jail sentence of up to one year, a $1,000 fine, and summary probation. If the charge includes allegations of financial gain or insurance purposes, the charge is always a felony. The punishment would be up to ten years in state prison and a fine of up to $10,000.
Get Help from a California DUI Lawyer
Charges of vehicular manslaughter while driving under the influence are serious criminal charges. Depending on the circumstances and your past criminal history, you could face a lifetime in prison. Don’t try to fight DUI charges alone. Instead, contact an experienced Southern California DUI attorney for a free consultation.
Talk To A DUI Defense Attorney
An experienced attorney can evaluate your case and discuss your options with you. A lawyer serving DUI clients will often offer a free no obligation consultation and everything discussed is protected by the attorney client relationship.
Schedule a free consultation with one of our expert California DUI attorneys here.
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