There are two types of vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated charges in California: PC 191.5(a) – vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence and PC 191.5(b) – vehicular manslaughter with ordinary negligence. Generally, the criminal offense of vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated is usually charged alongside, or instead of DUI. 

If you or your loved one has been charged with the offense of vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, you must consult an experienced DUI defense attorney as soon as possible. Don't put your future or that of your loved one at risk by attempting to speak out for yourself.

We at the Orange County DUI Defense Attorney Law Firm have extensive experience in defending PC 191.5(a) and PC 191.5(b) charges. Over the years, we have established various key relationships with law enforcement and prosecutorial agencies in Orange County. Our attorneys are highly respected too. We can help you obtain an acquittal, a dismissal, or at the very least – a reduction of your charges.

The History behind Vehicular Manslaughter Charges

Auto accidents are quite common in the United States. Over the years, deaths from these accidents started increasing at an alarming rate. It was later discovered that the most prevalent cause for such deaths was intoxicated driving.

Therefore, states had to look for a way to curb such deaths. This led to the incorporation of vehicular manslaughter offenses into their criminal laws. States had to prescribe harsh penalties to crimes involving vehicular manslaughter, and treat them as other grave crimes to reduce auto-accident related deaths.

Most states, including California, begun regarding offenses involving auto-accidents deaths as manslaughter. An individual who has killed another person while driving started to be held at the same level as to who committed the offense of manslaughter with a weapon. This explains why the crime of vehicular manslaughter has extremely grievous penalties in California up to date.

The California Legal Definition of the Offense of Vehicular Manslaughter

The California legal meaning of vehicular manslaughter is enshrined under PC 191.5(a) and PC 191.5(b). PC 191.5(a) enlists the criminal offense of vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence, while PC 191.5(b) prescribes the offense of vehicular manslaughter with ordinary negligence.

Vehicular Manslaughter with Ordinary Negligence

According to PC 191.5(b), it is unlawful for an individual to kill another person without having malice aforethought, but while driving a motor vehicle and violating California Vehicle Code sections 23152, 23153, and 23140. PC 191.5(b) lists four elements that the prosecution must prove for an individual to be convicted of the offense of vehicular manslaughter with ordinary negligence. These elements include:

  • Driving while under the influence of alcohol or drugs
  • Committing a California infraction, misdemeanor, or any other lawful activity that might result in death
  • Committing the infraction, lawful activity, or misdemeanor with ordinary negligence
  • The negligent conduct resulted in another person’s death

Below, we give you a comprehensive analysis of these four elements:

1.       Driving while under the Influence of Alcohol or Drugs

The court will consider you to have driven while under the influence of alcohol or drugs if you violated California Vehicle Code sections 23152(a), 23152(b), or 23140. As a general rule, a prosecutor who desires a defendant to be convicted of gross vehicular manslaughter must first prove that he/she committed the offense of DUI.

2.       A California Infraction, Misdemeanor, or any other Lawful Activity that might Result in Death

For you to be convicted of gross vehicular manslaughter, the prosecutor must demonstrate that you committed a California infraction, misdemeanor, or any other lawful activity that might result in death. This means that apart from the DUI, you must have committed an act, whether lawful or unlawful, that can cause death. It is not a requirement for this act to be inherently dangerous.

3.       Ordinary Negligence

You will be convicted under PC 191.5(b) if you acted with ordinary negligence. The court will hold you to have acted with ordinary negligence if you failed to exercise reasonable care and precaution to prevent another person from suffering reasonably predictable harm. Generally, you will be held to have engaged in negligent behavior if you do something that someone else who is reasonably careful would not have done, or you fail to take any action that a reasonably cautious individual would have taken had he/she been in that situation.

4.       Another Person’s Death

PC 191.5(b) charges can only stick if the negligent conduct caused another person’s death. As per PC 191.5(b), the death should be a probable, direct, or natural result of your negligent conduct. It isn’t a requirement for the prosecution to prove that it was your negligent conduct that was the victim’s sole cause of death, provided that it was a substantial factor in causing it.

Vehicular Manslaughter with Gross Negligence

PC 191.5(a) is California’s primary law on gross vehicular manslaughter. As per PC 191.5(a), an individual can be charged with the offense of gross vehicle manslaughter if he/she unlawfully killed another person without the presence of malice aforethought, but while violating California Vehicle Code sections 23152, 23153, and 23140 and exercising gross negligence. Just like PC 191.5(b), PC 191.5(a) enlists four elements that the prosecutor must prove for the jury to convict an individual of gross vehicular manslaughter. These elements are:

  • Driving while under the influence of alcohol or drugs
  • Commission of a California infraction, misdemeanor, or any other lawful activity that might result in death
  • Committing the infraction, lawful activity, or misdemeanor with gross negligence
  • The negligent conduct resulted in another person’s death

These elements are similar to that for PC 191.5(b), but except for negligence. Whereas PC 191.5(b) requires an individual to have acted with ordinary negligence, PC 191.5(a) states that an individual should have committed the infraction, misdemeanor, or any other lawful activity with gross negligence.

For you to be convicted under PC 191.5(a), the prosecutor must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you exhibited gross negligent conduct. If he/she fails to do so, your PC 191.5(a) charge may be reduced to a PC 191.5(b) charge.

Your conduct will be held to be grossly negligent if:

  • You acted in a reckless manner that created a high risk of great bodily injury or death
  • Any reasonable person would have known that such an act would have created such a risk

Gross negligence has a higher bar of recklessness, carelessness, or judgmental errors when compared to ordinary negligence. A person who has exhibited grossly negligent conduct should have acted in a manner that is markedly different from how a normal person would, and his/her actions should exhibit a conscious and wanton disregard for human life.

A combination of a DUI and a traffic law violation is not sufficient to prove gross negligence. According to California jury instructions on gross negligence, jury members should also evaluate other aspects regarding the conduct of the defendant, including the intoxication level and how he/she was driving.

The Penalties for Vehicular Manslaughter

The criminal offense of vehicular manslaughter with ordinary negligence is deemed to be a wobbler, and it can be prosecuted as a felony or a misdemeanor, depending on your record and the facts and circumstances of your case. As a misdemeanor, its potential penalties include informal probation, a county jail term not exceeding one year, and a fine whose maximum value is $1,000. The punishments for felony vehicular manslaughter with ordinary negligence include formal probation, a state prison term of 16 months, two years, or four years, or a fine whose maximum value is $10,000.

On the other hand, vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence is categorized as a felony. A person who is charged under PC 191.5(a) risks facing formal probation, a state prison sentence of four, six, or ten years, or a fine not exceeding $10,000 upon conviction. Convicts of gross vehicular manslaughter who already have a prior conviction of vehicular manslaughter (either ordinary or gross, or under PC 192(c), PC 192.5(a), and PC 192.5(b)) or a prior conviction of VC 23152 DUI or VC 23153 DUI causing injury may receive an enhanced state prison sentence of fifteen years to life. Also, any convict of gross vehicular manslaughter may receive a sentencing enhancement of 3 – 6 years for each surviving victim who sustained great bodily injuries in the accident. Furthermore, if you had fled the accident scene, you are likely to receive a 5-year additional sentence.

You can still avoid jail time even if you have been convicted of vehicular manslaughter, either as a felony or a misdemeanor. Your attorney can persuade the judge to sentence you to probation instead. The court can also permit you to participate in a community work project to replace or reduce jail or state prison time.

How Convictions under PC 191.5(a) and PC 191.5(b) can Affect your Driver’s Licenses

A conviction under PC 191.5(a) and PC 191.5(b) can make you lose your driving privileges. If you have been convicted of felony vehicular manslaughter with ordinary negligence, the DMV will suspend your driver’s license for one year. A conviction of vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence will lead to a three-year license suspension period. However, you won’t lose your driving privileges upon conviction of misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter with ordinary negligence.

You cannot drive a motor vehicle during the license suspension period. In case you do, you may face an additional charge under VC 14601 – driving on a suspended license.

Can a Conviction of Vehicular Manslaughter while Intoxicated Result in a Strike on an Individual’s Record?

You will not receive a strike on your record if you are convicted of vehicular manslaughter with ordinary negligence. However, vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence is categorized as a serious felony in California. Because it is deemed to be a serious felony, a person convicted of it may receive a strike on his/her record, pursuant to California’s Three Strikes Law.

If such an individual commits another serious felony, he/she will be sentenced to double the traditional penalties for that felony. A third strike will subject an individual to a minimum state prison sentence of 25 years, which can be lengthened to life.

How to Fight Criminal Charges under PC 191.5(a) and PC 191.5(b)

California prosecutors and law enforcement officers are overly strict about intoxicated driving. If you have been involved in a fatal accident, and there is some slight evidence that you were high on either drugs or alcohol, you will automatically take full blame for causing the accident. Everyone at the scene will point fingers at you, even if they know that you should not be held responsible for the crash, and someone else should be put to blame.

However, you can quickly reverse this hopeless situation by reaching out to a DUI criminal defense attorney. Your attorney will assist you in fighting charges under PC 191.5(a) and PC 191.5(b) with the help of the following defenses:

1.       You weren’t Intoxicated

Your attorney can utilize any legal defenses to DUI to show that you weren’t intoxicated. Because drunk driving is one of the most crucial elements that the prosecution must prove in a charge under PC 191.5(a) and PC 191.5(b), you will receive an acquittal if your attorney manages to convince the jury that you were not intoxicated.

Your defense attorney can discredit each piece of evidence of the prosecution that shows you were intoxicated. He/she can give reasonable explanations as to why you exhibited certain physical symptoms of intoxication, challenge the results and administration of BAC and field sobriety tests, and question police procedures during investigation and arrest.

2.       You were not Negligent

Driving requires an individual to make decisions quickly. The prosecution can find it challenging to convince the court that a reasonable person would not have made the same decision under similar circumstances, even if it resulted in another person's death.

This defense is quite effective in charges under PC 191.5(b). Your defense attorney can argue that you acted the way a reasonable and careful person would, and you did not exhibit any negligent conduct.

3.       Your Negligent Conduct was not the Cause of the Accident Victim’s Death

It can be quite tricky to establish the party at fault in an auto accident scene. Although you were negligent and someone else died, the prosecution may not be able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that your negligent conduct caused the death of the victim.

Your attorney can show the court how other forces and third parties may have resulted in the victim’s death. He/she may seek the assistance of accident reconstruction witnesses to explain to the court exactly what happened. If your defense attorney successfully proves that it wasn’t your negligent conduct that led to the death of the victim, you will receive an acquittal.

4.       Emergency

All over a sudden, you may face an emergency while driving. According to Penal Code 191.5(a) and Penal Code 191.5(b), you can only be convicted for vehicular manslaughter if you did not act in a manner a reasonable person would in similar circumstances. Therefore, if you were only responding to an emergency, you will obtain an acquittal.

Related Offenses to PC 191.5(a) and PC 191.5(b)

Several criminal offenses in the state of California are related to PC 191.5(a) and PC 191.5(b). These offenses can be used to replace charges for gross DUI vehicular manslaughter and ordinary negligence DUI vehicular manslaughter. They include:

1.       Vehicular Manslaughter/Gross Vehicular Manslaughter under PC 192(c)

Penal Code 192(c) is identical to both PC 191.5(a) and PC 191.5(b), except that the prosecutor does not need to prove that you were intoxicated. Your defense attorney can enter into a plea bargaining agreement with the prosecution to reduce your DUI vehicular manslaughter charges to PC 192(c) charges, especially if the evidence showing that you were intoxicated is weak.

PC 192(c) enlists two criminal offenses: gross negligence vehicular manslaughter and vehicular manslaughter without gross negligence. Gross negligence vehicular manslaughter is a wobbler. This means that prosecutors can charge it as a felony or a misdemeanor. As a felony, it attracts a jail term of a maximum of six years upon conviction.

Vehicular manslaughter without gross negligence is a misdemeanor. Its punishment is a county jail term of up to one year. However, the DMV will not suspend your driver’s license upon conviction.

2.       Watson Murder/DUI Murder

The California Department of Prosecution may charge the most serious cases that involve DUI deaths as murder instead of vehicular manslaughter under PC 191.5(a) and PC 191.5(b). Specifically, you should expect charges of Watson murder or DUI murder if you had killed someone else while drunk driving, and you have a prior DUI conviction, and you had also been well-educated on the harmful effects or had signed a ‘Watson advisement’ upon conviction of a past DUI offense.

The term ‘Watson advisement’ refers to a warning that is customarily given to DUI convicts. This warning states that it is inherently dangerous to the life of a human being to drive while intoxicated and that causing the death of another person while engaging in drunk driving can result in murder charges. Typically, prosecutors charge Watson murder under PC 187 – California’s main murder law.

3.       Vehicular Manslaughter for Financial Gain

The criminal offense of vehicular manslaughter for financial gain is enlisted under PC 192(c)3. PC 192(c)3 states that it is unlawful for an individual to knowingly participate or cause an accident, which results in the death of someone else with an intention to defraud any insurance company or another party.

This offense is always charged as a felony. Its potential punishments include a fine not exceeding $10,000 and a state prison term of four, six, or ten years.

4.       DUI Causing Injury

VC 23153 defines the offense of DUI causing injury. According to VC 23153, an individual can be charged with the offense of DUI causing injury if he/she was driving while intoxicated and caused an accident that resulted in bodily injuries to someone else. This offense may be charged instead of vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, in situations where there is weak evidence showing that the accident was a substantial cause of the victim’s death.

DUI causing injury is a wobbler. As a misdemeanor, it attracts the following penalties:

  • Informal probation for 3-5 years
  • A one-year county jail term
  • Fines between $390 - $5,000
  • Participation in a DUI educational program for three, nine, 18, or 30 months
  • Suspension of your driver’s license for one or three years
  • Restitution to injured parties

On the other hand, the punishments for felony DUI causing injury include:

  • Imprisonment for two, three, or four years
  • A consecutive and additional sentencing enhancement of 3 – 6 years if the victim suffered great bodily injury
  • A consecutive and additional sentencing enhancement of one year for each additional victim that suffered any injury
  • Fines between $1,015 - $5,000
  • A strike on your record if any victim sustained great bodily injury
  • Participating in a certified DUI school for 18 or 30 months
  • Being designated as a habitual traffic offender for three years
  • A five-year driver’s license revocation period

5.       Child Endangerment

You might be charged under PC 273(a) for child endangerment if you had a child who is below 14 years old inside your vehicle while drunk driving. This offense can be charged alongside with vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated. According to PC 273(a), it is unlawful for an individual to expose a child to danger, suffering, or pain.

Note that you can still be charged under PC 273(a) even if the child was not injured in the accident. The offense of child endangerment is a wobbler. The penalties for misdemeanor child endangerment include a county jail term of a maximum of one year or a fine of up to $1,000. As a felony, it attracts a state prison sentence of two, four, or six years, or a fine not exceeding $10,000.

Find a DUI Criminal Defense Attorney Near Me

Contact us at the Orange County DUI Defense Attorney Law Firm if you have any questions about vehicular manslaughter charges, or you want a free case evaluation from our DUI defense attorneys. We are the go-to law firm if you need help in building an excellent defense strategy. Call us today at 714-740-7866.