According to California Penal Code 192 (c) PC, you may face vehicular manslaughter charges if you negligently commit an unlawful act, which is not a felony in California, and cause the death of another individual. You may also face similar charges if you commit a lawful act that may cause the demise of another person. If you commit a vehicular manslaughter offense while you are intoxicated, you may be liable under DUI Vehicular Manslaughter (California Penal Code 191.5 (b) PC). Other possible charges include gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated (California Penal Code 191.5 (a) PC). The San Jose DUI Attorney Law Firm is an experienced firm that has experienced attorneys who can handle all DUI cases relating to vehicular manslaughter.

Overview of California DUI Law relating to Vehicular Manslaughter

There are three elements to the crime of DUI vehicular manslaughter. The first element entails breaking the DUI rule by operating a vehicle while you are intoxicated. The second element entails acting negligently while driving. The third element entails killing another individual due to the negligent conduct. 

Intoxication is having more than .08% blood alcohol concentration (BAC) and operating a vehicle in that body state. If you are a commercial driver; however, you are intoxicated if your blood alcohol concentration is beyond .04%. For persons under the age of 21, you are intoxicated if you record a BAC of .05% and above. The California Zero Tolerance Law is applicable if you are an underage driver, and are intoxicated with a blood alcohol content of .01% and above.  If you operate a vehicle under the influence of other drugs or a combination of other drugs and alcohol, you are intoxicated according to California law.

For example, Kevin, a student under the age of twenty-one years, is driving home drunk, he hits a passenger who later dies. The law enforcement officers suspecting a case of DUI tests Kevin, who records a BAC of .05%. In this case, Kevin may face vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated charges, as he is underage. If the same scenario involved a mature driver above the age of 21, he might not face similar charges as Kevin since the BAC limits for adults is .08% under California law.  Instead, the adult driver may be charged under California vehicular manslaughter (Penal Code 192 (c) PC).

You can be guilty of intoxication even for taking prescription medicines. Where narcotics are involved, you are under the influence if the drugs in your system impair your ability to operate a vehicle reasonably. It does not matter whether the drugs are illegal or legal, as long as your ability to drive is impaired; you are guilty of driving under the influence. 

To be liable under Penal Code 191.5 (b) PC, you must act negligently or perform an illegal act that is not a felony in California. The act may be either an infraction or a misdemeanor. You may also commit a legal act but in a way that may lead to the death of another individual. The DUI is not enough to qualify for DUI vehicular manslaughter. It has to be accompanied by another dangerous act. Illegal actions may include over speeding, making abrupt U-turns without minding the oncoming traffic, or driving along an exit-only lane if you do not mean to exit. 

If you fail to exercise your due duty of care to avoid causing harm to another person, you may be charged with ordinary negligence. A combination of drunk driving and ordinary negligence may lead to vehicular manslaughter charges while intoxicated if another individual dies as a result.  In determining whether you acted negligently, a judge may consider what a sober person would have done or how a sober person would have acted in a situation similar to yours.

Penalties for DUI Vehicular Manslaughter

Under Penal Code 191.5 (b) PC, the penalty for vehicular manslaughter, resulting from ordinary negligence while under the influence may be either a felony or a misdemeanor charge. In deciding whether to charge you for a felony or misdemeanor, the attorney may consider factors such as your criminal history and the facts surrounding your case.

For a misdemeanor charge, the penalties for vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated may include:

Summary Probation-For a misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter, you may be required to serve informal misdemeanor probation. This is inactive probation, and you will not have to schedule meetings with the probation officer. Under this probation, the law does not require you to report to the probation office.

Fines- The fines associated with vehicular manslaughter under the influence may be up to one thousand dollars ($1,000). 

Jail Time- You may face one-year imprisonment in county jail.

If the vehicular manslaughter offense is a felony, the associated penalties are harsher, and they include:

Fines- The fines associated with a felony offense are much higher than fines for a misdemeanor offense. For vehicular manslaughter charged as a felony, you may pay fines of up to ten thousand dollars ($ 10,000).

Extended Imprisonment- A felony manslaughter may be punishable by sixteen-month imprisonment, two-year, or four-year imprisonment depending on the nature of the case

Formal Probation- A formal felony probation may be part of the penalty. This is active probation, and an offender has to meet the probation officer from time to time. The offender may also require paying regular visits to the probation office. If an offender violates the terms of probation, the judge may revoke the probation and recommend imprisonment instead.

License Suspension- If your vehicular manslaughter case is a felony, your license may be suspended for up to one year. You will lose your driving privileges. However, for a misdemeanor offense, your license is not suspended. If you defy the license suspension charges and you operate your vehicle while on suspension, you may face additional charges of operating a vehicle under a suspended driver's license. Charges for driving on a suspended driver's license are covered under Vehicle Code 14601 VC.

Defending Yourself against Penal Code 191.5 (b) Charges

Both the law and society are against drinking and operating a vehicle. When a severe accident occurs due to alcohol or drug involvement, and a person dies, everyone will be against the offender. After being convicted under Penal Code 191.5 (b), you may think that your situation is hopeless. However, this is not the case since there are several defense strategies that your attorney can adopt to help reduce your charges:

Reject the Evidence of an Above Limit BAC

In your defense, your attorney may challenge your BAC results presented in court. For instance, the attorney may assess the condition of the Breathalyzer machine used to test your breath to determine if it is faulty. The attorney may also request for the maintenance record of the breath test equipment. It is a requirement of the law for breath test machines to undergo routine maintenance and to be calibrated frequently. If an attorney establishes that the test devices are not in good condition, he/she may challenge the validity of the BAC results. The attorney may request the court to reduce your charges or to dismiss the evidence against you as unreliable.

In an attempt to prove that you are guilty, the law enforcement officer and the prosecutor may argue that at the time of your arrest, you showed signs of impairment.  Signs of impairment may include confusion, watery eyes, or failure to concentrate. In your defense, your attorney may argue that such signs were because of the shock of being involved in an accident, illness, or fatigue. 

Under California's Title 17, there are certain guidelines that an officer should follow when conducting tests. The officer conducting the test should have a full understanding of how to operate the test equipment and how to interpret the readings. If your attorney learns that the right testing procedure was not followed, or that an authorized person did not conduct the test, he/she may challenge the validity of the BAC results in court. 

You Were not Negligent.

To face vehicular manslaughter under the influence charges, you must have acted negligently. Driving requires you to make some quick judgments and decisions. At times, some of the decisions you make as a driver may have some adverse outcomes such as accidents. However, making a bad decision does not signify negligence. Your DUI defense attorney can argue that the decisions you made were not different from decisions that a sober person would have made in similar circumstances. If the attorney proves that you did not act negligently, you cannot face charges for DUI vehicular manslaughter.

The Victim's Death Did Not Result from Your Negligence

In matters relating to vehicle accidents, it is difficult to sort out cause and effect. If you are involved in an accident while intoxicated and someone ends up dead, it is not easy for the prosecution to establish that your negligence caused the death. The death may have resulted from the negligence of the deceased, other third parties, or a force that you could not control. With the assistance of an accident reconstruction expert, your DUI attorney can challenge the prosecutor's allegation of what took place during the accident to prove that your actions did not cause the death of the victim.

You Acted in a Reasonable Manner

In your defense, your attorney may argue that you acted in the same judgment and concern as a sober person would in the face of an emergency.  For instance, you may have faced an emergency, such as a faulty headlight that affected your vision. You then drove below the required speed, and another vehicle hits you from behind, and a person in that vehicle dies. In your defense, your attorney may argue that you slowed down to respond to the emergence of a faulty headlight. A sober person would have acted similarly in the face of an emergency. You cannot be guilty of vehicular manslaughter while under the influence if you acted reasonably.

Offenses Related to Penal Code 195.5 (b) PC

There are some additional offenses related to vehicular manslaughter under the influence (Penal Code 195.5 (b) PC.  You face charges under Penal Code 195.5 (b) if you act with ordinary negligence. However, you may face some enhanced charges if the prosecution proves that you acted with gross negligence. Gross negligence refers to acting with reckless disregard of human life. The California Gross DUI Vehicular Manslaughter outlines the facts surrounding the crime of gross negligence by intoxicated drivers:

Penal Code 191.5 (a) Gross Vehicular Manslaughter while Under Influence

There are various elements of Gross DUI Vehicular Manslaughter:

  • Breaking the California DUI law by operating a vehicle with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of .08% or more, a BAC of .05% or more if you are below the age of 21, and a BAC of .04% or more if you are a driver of commercial vehicles

  • You operated a vehicle while under the influence of drugs other than alcohol or a combination of both drugs and alcohol

  • You acted negligently or committed an offense that may lead to loss of human life. The offense committed may either be an infraction or a misdemeanor

  • You acted in gross negligence by acting in a manner that poses a high risk of great bodily injury or a risk of death

  • You are only guilty of gross negligence if it is clear that you do not value human life. For instance, you may be driving home while intoxicated with a BAC of .08% or more; you realize that the traffic is heavy and you are in a hurry to get home. You suddenly drive off the road onto a sidewalk to overtake the vehicles ahead of you. In the process, you end up hitting a person walking on the sidewalk, and the person dies. In such a situation, you may be guilty of gross vehicular manslaughter while under the influence; by driving on a sidewalk used by pedestrians, it is an indication that you intentionally posed a danger to others.

Punishment for Gross Vehicular Manslaughter Under Influence

Under the Penal Code 195.5 (a) in California, gross vehicular manslaughter under the influence is a felony. The penalties for the offense include:

Felony probation- This an active probation during which you may be required to perform community service duties, meet up with the probation officer as often as the probation terms recommend, attend drug and alcohol education and counseling, and violate no other law during the probation period. Failing to adhere to the terms of the probation may result in more severe punishment such as imprisonment.

Imprisonment- For a gross DUI vehicular manslaughter under the influence charges, the consequences may include imprisonment in state prison. You may serve a four-year, six-year, or ten-year prison term.

Fines-The offense may also attract some fines of up to ten thousand dollars ($10,000).

If you have prior DUI related offenses such as ordinary negligence DUI vehicular manslaughter or normal vehicular manslaughter, you may receive a severe punishment. A repeat offender may serve up to fifteen years in a state prison or life imprisonment.

Can Gross DUI Vehicular Manslaughter be a Misdemeanor?

Only a vehicular manslaughter offense that does not involve gross negligence can qualify as a misdemeanor. Vehicular manslaughter offenses resulting from ordinary negligence are wobblers and can be either felonies or misdemeanors depending on the facts surrounding the case. However, vehicular manslaughter resulting from gross negligence and the offender's disregard of human life is a felony.

Reducing Vehicular Manslaughter Under Influence to a Lesser Crime

If you are facing gross vehicular manslaughter charges, your offense may be reduced to a lesser crime depending on the evidence presented by the prosecutor and the prosecutor's ability to defend the evidence. If the prosecution cannot prove all the elements of a gross vehicular manslaughter crime, you may face reduced charges. For instance, your attorney may argue that depending on the presentation of facts by the prosecutor; your crime does not qualify as gross vehicular manslaughter but ordinary negligence vehicular manslaughter under the influence.

Does Three Strikes Law Apply to DUI Vehicular Manslaughter

Yes. California's Three Strikes Law applies to felony DUI offenses as well. The law instills severe punishment for repeat offenders. Violent or felony crimes like gross vehicular manslaughter while under influence count as strikes. If you face felony gross vehicular manslaughter charges and you already have another prior strike, the sentence given for the second crime may include a double prison term. If you commit a felony offense and you have two prior strikes, you may face up to 25 years in state prison or life imprisonment.

If you have a prior DUI offense, you may face second-degree murder charges under the Watson Murder rule, if you kill a person while driving under the influence. Watson murder derived its name from a case of People v. Watson presented in California Supreme Court in 1981. In the case, the court asserted that if a person driving under the influence kills another person, he/she might face murder charges under California Penal Code 187, if he/she acted in implied malice.

Implied Malice

Malice aforethought or implied malice is not the same as ill intention towards a victim. However, you may be guilty of malice aforethought if you intentionally commit an offense such as driving under the influence, whose likely consequences are dangerous to people's life. To be guilty, you must have been aware at the time of committing the offense that the offense would pose a danger to human life. The prosecutor has to prove you deliberately and consciously acted disregarded human life.

Often, it is hard for the prosecutor to prove that a driver had a conscious disregard for human life. If the prosecutor cannot prove this, most cases qualify as ordinary negligence vehicular manslaughter under the influence or gross vehicular manslaughter under the influence.

When Can You Face Watson Murder Charges?

On top of having a prior conviction of Watson murder, you may also face Watson murder charges if you attended California DUI School or if a Watson admonition was read to you in a prior offense. A Watson admonition refers to a warning served to offenders facing DUI charges. The admonition outlines that driving under the influence is a dangerous crime that may pose a danger to people's life. The admonition also points out that a subsequent conviction of driving while intoxicated might lead to murder charges.

Several factors increase the likelihood of receiving murder charges after committing a DUI offense resulting in death. The factors include recording very high levels of blood alcohol concentration, a BAC of .15% or above. You may face murder charges if you record reckless driving such as driving at very high speed or engaging in a speed contest. Murder charges may also result from felony reckless driving while evading a peace/police officer.

Penalties for DUI Murder

For a DUI murder charge in California, you may face up to fifteen years in state prison. You may also pay fines amounting to ten thousand dollars ($10,000). Under California's Three Strikes law, you may get a strike on your criminal history for causing the death of a person while driving under the influence.

The defense against DUI murder charges is similar to defense against vehicular manslaughter. For instance, your attorney may assert that you did not operate the vehicle under the influence of alcohol. Your attorney may also argue that you did not cause the death of the victim. The attorney may also maintain that you did not act with malice aforethought. Your attorney may defend you if he/she suspects police or prosecutor misconduct. In such a scenario, the attorney may file a Pitchess motion to have the matter investigated.

Contact a San Jose DUI Attorney Near Me

The sentence and penalties for vehicular manslaughter while under the influence of alcohol or drugs can be detrimental and life-changing. It is therefore wise to seek the help of a DUI attorney who fully understands the DUI laws to handle your case. Having a competent attorney by your side may help reduce your charges for a favorable outcome. At San Jose DUI Attorney Law Firm, we have well-trained and experienced attorneys who can handle all DUI cases. Call us at 408-777-6630 and speak to one of our attorneys. When facing charges for DUI vehicular manslaughter, the prosecutor will seek to prove that you are guilty. A DUI attorney can stand up to the prosecution by weighing and assessing the credibility of all evidence presented against you.