Vehicular manslaughter in California is a crime that can be charged in more instances than one would think. As we look at recent reports of the tragic April 10 accident involving a FED-EX tractor trailer truck and a school bus killing 10 people including 17 year old Marisa Serrata from Norte Vista High School in Riverside, it appears that the evidence related to the crash indicates that the FEDEX vehicle was not on fire before it crossed interstate 5 in Orland, California going the opposite direction hitting a car and then a school bus. (See http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/04/13/ntsb-no-evidence-fedex-truck-ablaze-before-bus-crash/7674163/)
Unfortunately, neither the driver of the FEDEX truck nor the driver of the school bus survived the crash leaving unanswered questions for law enforcement and California lawyers representing the victims of the terrible crash. In my 19 years in representing people charged with crimes in California, crashed like these often times could lead to criminal charges involving vehicular manslaughter if the driver causing the accident obviously survives the tragic event.
When is it possible to be charged with the crime of vehicular manslaughter under the laws of the State of California
Many people believe that one can only be charged with vehicular manslaughter if they caused a death while driving under the influence. As discussed below, even people not driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs can be exposed to criminal charges if they kill another while negligently operating a vehicle in California.
1. DUI and Vehicular Manslaughter
When a defendant pleads guilty to driving under the influence including driving with a blood alcohol level of 0.08 or higher (See California Penal Code section 23152(b)), a California Superior Court Judge whether the case be in Los Angeles, Riverside or any other county in California will remind a person that if a person kills another while driving under the influence they can be charged with murder. Such warning is not only true but probably the single greatest reason that DUI laws in the United States including California are so stringent.
If you kill a person while driving under the influence in California, you may be faced with criminal charges of Second Degree Murder commonly known as a “Watson Murder.” To be found guilty of second degree murder involving a vehicular death, a prosecutor must prove that the accused intentionally committed a dangerous act with knowledge of the danger to, and with conscious disregard for, human life. This implied malice is set forth in California Penal Code section 187 as an alternative means of finding intent for murder. A conviction of Second Degree Murder in California can lead to a sentence in California State Prison of 15 years to life in prison pursuant to Penal Code section 190(a).
In the case of the FEDEX truck accident in Orland, California, it is still unclear what caused the drive of the FEDEX to cross the freeway going the opposite direction into traffic killing numerous people including children on their to a college tour in Humboldt, California. If the driver survived the accident and was found to be driving under the influence of either alcohol or drugs, he would most certainly be facing charges of Second Degree Murder.
2. Vehicular Manslaughter — Negligence and Violations of the California Vehicle Code
Depending on the circumstances an accident including a driver being under the influence of drugs or alcohol, prosecutors do have the option of charging a person with Vehicular Manslaughter as opposed to second degree murder which carries a sentence as low as 1 year in County Jail or up to 6 years in state prison for vehicular manslaughter convictions involving gross negligence under California Penal Code section 191.5. Any person accused of a crime whether it be Vehicular Manslaughter or Murder as a result of a motor vehicle accident, should always consult with and if possible retain an experienced California criminal defense lawyer to explore and assert any defenses which may lead to dismissal and or reduction of the criminal charges. A person accused of such a serious crime, should always attempt to consult with and/or retain an experienced criminal defense attorney.
Often times a person’s past criminal record and their blood alcohol level (if alcohol is involved) may dictate whether an experienced defense attorney can get the case dismissed or reduced to a charge involving little or no jail time.
In more recent cases, prosecutors will charge drivers causing death with gross negligence if persons are found to have violated certain California Vehicle sections in an egregious way such as driving 30 MPH over a posted speed limit or killing a person while texting and driving which is not only frowned upon by law enforcement but also the general public who are now well aware of the numerous amounts of accidents including ones leading to the death of another driver as a result of texting or talking on the phone while driving.
The general difference between negligence while driving causing a death which could lead to probation or up to a year in county jail and “gross negligence” which could lead to 6 year state prison sentence in California is generally in the mental state of the driver accused of the crime. To prove someone was driving “negligently” a prosecutor must show that the drive killed another by violating a reasonable duty of care to the injured person. A prosecutor can show “gross negligence” by showing that the offending driver had a knowing disregard for the safety of others.
Importance of Retaining a Criminal Defense Attorney Familiar with Vehicle Death Cases
As you can see a finding of “negligence” as opposed to “gross negligence” or “recklessness” by a jury in a criminal case can greatly affect the rest of a person’s life. As such, if you have been charged with murder and/or vehicular manslaughter as a result of an automobile accident in Los Angeles, Orange County or Riverside/San Bernardino Counties, you should immediately consult with a criminal defense attorney who can successfully guide you to a proper resolution of your case which could include a not guilty verdict or dismissal outright of criminal charges.