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Defending Vehicular Manslaughter Charges in California

Posted by Dmitry Gorin | Apr 09, 2021

Review of Penal Code 192(c) Vehicular Manslaughter Charges and Defenses

Under California Penal Code 192(c) PC, vehicular manslaughter charges can be filed when someone drives in a negligent or unlawful manner and then causes the death of another person.

In other words, if someone dies in a car accident, you could face vehicular manslaughter charges if you were driving negligently or doing something illegal.

Vehicular Manslaughter in California – Penal Code 192(c) PC
Vehicular manslaughter is described as driving negligently then causing someone's death.

The severity of the penalties if convicted will always depend on the level of negligence (ordinary or gross), whether you were driving under the influence and criminal history.

A few common examples of PC 192(c) vehicular manslaughter cases include:

  • driver text messaging on cell phone while driving and striking and killing a pedestrian walking across the street;
  • driver speeding and driving recklessly and causes a serious vehicle accident that kills the other driver.

Vehicular manslaughter under Penal Code Section 192(c) presents a specific scenario which is far too common in our highly motorized society in California.

A major factor is the prosecution of a vehicular manslaughter case is whether the driver acted with ordinary or gross negligence.

For more information, our Los Angeles criminal defense lawyers are providing an overview below.

During Commission of an Unlawful Act

Under Penal Code 192(c), vehicular manslaughter can happen in different ways:

Driving with Ordinary or Gross Negligence
In vehicle manslaughter cases, the level of negligence will normally determine how the case is filed.

If you cause a death while driving “in the commission of an unlawful act,” that isn't a felony, and with gross negligence, it is vehicular manslaughter.

In California, gross negligence is “the lack of any care or an extreme departure from what a reasonably careful person would do in the same situation to prevent harm to oneself or others.”

Gross negligence is more serious than simple negligence but not as extreme as recklessness.

While there is no specific hard written rule that clearly states when someone has acted grossly negligent, California courts generally describe it as:

  • very great negligence,
  • an extreme departure from ordinary conduct, and
  • failure to exercise the care that even a careless person would use.

For example, if you are texting while driving and hit and kill a pedestrian, prosecutors could charge you with vehicular manslaughter.

If you kill someone accidentally while committing a felony, you may face felony murder charges in California.

Driving with Ordinary or Gross Negligence

If you cause a death while driving in “commission of a lawful act” but with gross negligence or ordinary negligence, it is vehicular manslaughter.

In California, negligence is:

  • doing something that a reasonably careful person would not in that situation, or
  • failing to do something that a reasonably careful person would do in that situation.

For example, if you were driving to pick up the kids from school and accidentally ran a stop sign, killing a bicyclist, the police may charge you with vehicular manslaughter.

This statute doesn't prevent you from also facing Penal Code 187 murder charges. 

California Penalties for Vehicular Manslaughter

The penalties for vehicular manslaughter vary based on the degree of negligence.

gross negligence: if you acted with gross negligence, you could be charged with vehicular manslaughter as either a felony or misdemeanor. The charge will largely depend on the circumstances of the accident. Felony vehicular manslaughter has a maximum penalty of six years in state prison, up to a $10,000 fine, and felony probation. When charged as a misdemeanor, the maximum penalty is up to one year in state jail.

ordinary negligence: if you acted with ordinary negligence, vehicular manslaughter is a misdemeanor. The maximum penalty is one year in state jail, a $1,000 fine, and misdemeanor probation.

license suspension: If convicted of vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence or for financial gain, California will suspend your driver's license for a minimum of three years.

Related California Offenses for Penal Code 192(c)

Penal Code 191.5 PC – gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated,

Penal Code 187 PC – DUI Watson murder,

Vehicle Code 23152(a) VC – driving under the influence,

Vehicle Code 23152(b) VC – driving with a BAC of .08 or greater,

Vehicle Code 23152(f) VC – driving under the influence of drugs,

Legal Defenses to Vehicular Manslaughter

When defending vehicular manslaughter charges, our criminal defense attorneys have several options:

Legal Defenses to PC 192(c) Vehicular Manslaughter in California
We use use a variety of strategies to fight the vehicular manslaughter charges

You didn't act with negligence or gross negligence 

Nailing down exactly what a “reasonable person” would do in a specific set of circumstances can be challenging for the prosecution to prove.

We could argue that you didn't act negligently or that you were only negligent and not grossly negligent under the circumstances.

Your actions didn't cause the victim's death

Because it can be difficult to parse out the exact cause of an accident, we could argue that your actions didn't cause the victim's death.

Rather, a third-party's actions, the victim's negligence, or even road conditions resulted in the victim's death.

You had a sudden emergency and acted reasonably considering the circumstances.

If you had a sudden emergency on the roadway, you only have to act with the same care and judgment that an ordinary person would exercise under the same circumstances.

For example, if you swerved into oncoming traffic and caused an accident with a fatality, but you did so only to avoid hitting someone who ran into the road, we can argue that you acted reasonably and not with negligence.

Criminal Defense for California Vehicular Manslaughter Cases

If you're facing vehicular manslaughter charges in California, our experienced criminal attorneys can help determine the best options for your defense.

Whether ordinary or gross negligence is alleged, the prosecutor has to further prove that the defendant's driving caused the death of another person.

Criminal Defense for California Vehicular Manslaughter Cases
Call our office to examine the details of the case.

Even though the defendant may have actually caused the accident, other causes could have contributed that are out of their control and could absolve the defendant of responsibility. 

Recall that under Penal Code Section 192(c) PC, only defendants who directly cause the death of another person, or whose conduct probably resulted in the death of another person can be charged with vehicular manslaughter.

We might be able to negotiate with the prosecutor for reduced charges or even avoid the formal filing of charges though prefiling intervention.

Eisner Gorin LLP represents clients throughout Southern California. We have two office locations in Los Angeles County, including Century City and Van Nuys.

Call our firm for an initial consultation at (310) 328-3776.

About the Author

Dmitry Gorin

Dmitry Gorin is a licensed attorney, who has been involved in criminal trial work and pretrial litigation since 1994. Before becoming partner in Eisner Gorin LLP, Mr. Gorin was a Senior Deputy District Attorney in Los Angeles Courts for more than ten years. As a criminal tri...

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