Vehicular Manslaughter

Vehicular manslaughter is also known as vehicular homicide. Both terms refer to a crime involving the death of a person other than the driver, as the result of either the negligent or intentionally malicious operation of a vehicle. Vehicular manslaughter is more often used to describe cases of criminal negligence, whereas vehicular homicide can be used more generally to mean “dangerous driving that ultimately results in death.” The victim can either be a passenger in the offender’s vehicle, or a person not in the car, such as a pedestrian, cyclist, or another driver. To explore this concept, consider the following vehicular manslaughter definition.

Definition of Vehicular Manslaughter

Noun

  1. The crime of causing a death while driving a vehicle negligently.

What is Vehicular Manslaughter

The term “vehicular manslaughter” refers to the crime of killing another person, either intentionally or negligently, as the result of one’s driving. For example, vehicular manslaughter can describe a drinking and driving situation wherein the driver drives under the influence and kills his passenger as a result. Another example of vehicular manslaughter is an angry driver deliberately driving so as to hit a passer-by, ultimately killing the pedestrian.

Laws on vehicular manslaughter vary by state, and every state, except for Alaska, Arizona, and Montana, have statutes related to vehicular homicide. The laws associated with vehicular manslaughter and vehicular homicide essentially define one’s vehicle as a deadly weapon. This is done to allow for easier convictions of guilty offenders and for more severe penalties to be imposed. In states that do not have related statutes, defendants can still be charged with regular manslaughter or murder, depending on the situation.

In the Model Penal Code, which is a text that governs criminal law, no distinction is made between vehicular homicide, and a vehicular homicide that results from a driver’s negligence (vehicular manslaughter). Both crimes are instead included in the more general category of “negligent homicide.”

Types of Vehicular Homicide

There are several different types of vehicular homicide that can carry their own particular set of penalties, vary by the state in which the offense occurs, as well by as the particular crime that has been committed. What follows is an overview of the types of vehicular homicide that a person can be accused of committing.

Negligent/Reckless Driving

In several states, a person can be convicted of vehicular homicide for driving a vehicle in such a negligent or reckless manner that it results in the death of another person. To prove that the driver was driving negligently or recklessly, the prosecution needs to be able to show that the driver understood that his driving was risky, but disregarded this understanding and drove dangerously anyway.

DUI-Related Vehicular Homicide

For someone to be convicted of vehicular homicide while under the influence of drugs or alcohol, it must be shown that the driver was intoxicated while driving, and that his driving caused another person’s death. Some states, however, require that the prosecution also prove that the motorist was driving negligently. In many states, a person is considered “under the influence” of alcohol if his blood alcohol concentration (BAC) is .08% or higher. As of 2017, the state of Utah has established legal a BAC level of .05% or higher.

Traffic Violation Related Vehicular Homicide

Some states define the crime of vehicular homicide as one’s causing the death of another while committing a traffic violation. For instance, in Georgia, a driver can be convicted of first-degree vehicular homicide if he causes the death of another person while:

  • Unlawfully passing a school bus
  • Engaging in reckless driving
  • Driving under the influence
  • Fleeing from law enforcement

Also in Georgia, if a driver kills another person while committing any other traffic offense from the ones listed above, the crime is considered second-degree homicide by vehicle.

Penalties for Vehicular Manslaughter

Penalties for vehicular manslaughter vary, depending on the state in which the crime was committed. Below are just a few examples of how the penalties for vehicular manslaughter differ by state.

California

Penalties for vehicular manslaughter in California grow progressively more severe, depending on the specifics of the crime. These categories are, in increasing severity:

  • Vehicular manslaughter
  • Vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated
  • Gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated
  • Second-degree murder

No matter the category, the prosecution must be able to prove that the driver engaged in wrongful behavior that resulted in a collision, and the death of the victim. Murder charges for vehicle-related deaths are not handed down often, rather being saved for the more appalling offenses. An example of vehicular manslaughter charges that may be elevated to a murder charge might occur if a driver who was previously convicted of DUI, drove while under the influence yet again, and caused a fatal accident.

Georgia

In Georgia, the crime of causing a death while operating a vehicle is better known by the phrase “homicide by vehicle.” To be guilty of this crime, the perpetrator does not need to possess an intent to kill or premeditation. Penalties for vehicular manslaughter in Georgia are grouped into two categories:

  • First-Degree Homicide by Vehicle: A felony that will result in a prison sentence of 3-15 years, or 5-20 years for repeat offenders, with no parole for at least a year.
  • Second-Degree Homicide by Vehicle: A misdemeanor that will result in a jail sentence of up to one year, a fine of up to $1,000, or both.

First-degree homicide by vehicle would encompass crimes like driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, failing to stop after a collision, and either failing to stop for, or attempting to flee from, a law enforcement official. Repeat offenders can also be bumped up to a first-degree charge. Second-degree homicide by vehicle refers to any other homicides by vehicle that would not be considered a first-degree homicide.

Minnesota

In Minnesota, there are six levels of crimes involving death by vehicle, vehicular homicide being just one. In this state, vehicular homicide is defined as causing the death of another person as the result of:

  • Operating a motor vehicle in an obviously negligent manner
  • Operating a motor vehicle in a negligent manner while intoxicated
  • Fleeing the scene of an accident

Vehicular homicide does not constitute murder or manslaughter in Minnesota. Further, in order for someone to be convicted on a charge of vehicular homicide, the prosecution must be able to prove a mens rea, or a “state of mind,” of gross negligence.

Vehicular Manslaughter Example Involving a Pregnant Woman

On May 30, 2008, Jennifer Jorgensen was driving eastbound on Whiskey Road on Long island when she ultimately crossed over into the westbound lane and struck the car carrying Robert and Mary Kelly head on. The couple was killed and, at the time of the accident, Jorgensen was 34 weeks pregnant. She was taken to the local hospital where, after the baby began showing signs of distress, she agreed to an emergency C-section.

Unfortunately, the baby died six days later, and an autopsy confirmed that the cause of death was due to injuries the baby sustained in the accident. Jorgensen was not wearing her seat belt, and she struck the steering wheel in the crash, causing what became fatal injuries to her unborn child.

Jorgensen was indicted 13 months later on three counts of manslaughter in the second degree, one count of aggravated vehicular homicide, and one count of operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol or drugs. After the first jury was unable to reach a unanimous verdict, the matter proceeded to a second trial.

The prosecution’s theory was that Jorgensen was driving over 50 miles per hour in a 30 mile-per-hour zone, and that her reckless conduct killed, not only the Kelly couple, but also her own six-day-old child. The jury ultimately found Jorgensen not guilty on all counts except for manslaughter in the second degree for the death of her own child. Jorgensen appealed, and the Appellate Division affirmed the conviction.

The matter then reached the New York Court of Appeals, and the Court surprisingly reversed the lower courts’ decisions. The sole issue the Court considered was whether a pregnant woman could be convicted of manslaughter for reckless conduct if her child was born alive, but then died days later. The Court ultimately held that the legislature that would govern this action did not intend for pregnant women to be held criminally responsible for their actions with respect to themselves and their unborn children, unless those actions were carried out intentionally.

Said the Court:

“Had the legislature intended to include pregnant women in the class of individuals who may be guilty of manslaughter in the second degree for reckless acts committed while pregnant, resulting in the eventual death of their child, it could clearly have done so. Moreover, had defendant’s fetus died in utero, then, plainly, defendant could not have been prosecuted under the manslaughter statute because the fetus would not have fallen under the definition of a ‘person’ (Penal Law § 125.05 [1].”

Further, the Court argued that the law should be the governing force in cases like these, and not the courts themselves. Specifically, the Court stated:

“The imposition of criminal liability upon pregnant women for acts committed against a fetus that is later born and subsequently dies as a result of injuries sustained while in utero should be clearly defined by the legislature, not the courts. It should also not be left to the whim of the prosecutor. Conceivably, one could find it ‘reckless’ for a pregnant woman to disregard her obstetrician’s specific orders concerning bed rest; take prescription and/or illicit drugs; shovel a walkway; engage in a contact sport; carry groceries; or disregard dietary restrictions. Such conduct, if it resulted in premature birth and subsequent death of the child, could result in criminal liability for the mother. At present, such conduct, if it caused a stillbirth, would not result in criminal prosecution of the mother if the fetus died in utero. Any change in the law with regard to such matters would be within the province of the legislature.”

As such, the Court reversed the order of the Appellate Division and further ordered the remaining count of the indictment to be dismissed.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Defendant – A party against whom a lawsuit has been filed in civil court, or who has been accused of, or charged with, a crime or offense.
  • Intent – A resolve to perform an act for a specific purpose; a resolution to use a particular means to a specific end.
  • Mens Rea – The intent to do wrong that constitutes part of a crime, as compared to the actual act or conduct of the accused.
  • Premeditation – The act of planning a crime before committing it.
  • Prosecution – Legal proceedings against an individual for criminal behavior.
  • Prosecutor – A lawyer who conducts a case against a defendant in a criminal trial.

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