Drinking and driving in California can have devastating outcomes, up to and including the loss of life. When a driver is found to be under the influence and driving in a negligent manner which subsequently causes an accident that kills someone, it is known as “gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated” and it is considered a felony offense. If you are facing charges of gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, you could be looking at a potential jail or prison sentence of up to 10 years, depending on the circumstances and specifics of the case.
What is Gross Vehicular Manslaughter While Intoxicated?
The California Penal Code PEN 191.5(a) defines gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated as:
“Gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated is the unlawful killing of a human being without malice aforethought, in the driving of a vehicle, where the driving was in violation of Section 23140, 23152, or 23153 of the Vehicle Code, and the killing was either the proximate result of the commission of an unlawful act, not amounting to a felony, and with gross negligence, or the proximate result of the commission of a lawful act that might produce death, in an unlawful manner, and with gross negligence.”
This means that multiple offenses are being committed simultaneously. Not only is the driver already violating one of California’s DUI laws (23140, 23152, or 23153), but in the course of doing so, the driver also commits another act or behaves in such a negligent manner that the result leads to the death of another.
A hypothetical situation where this might apply is a driver being over the legal limit of .08% blood alcohol content, and speeding to such a degree that they strike another vehicle and kill the other driver. Another example would be someone who is legally drunk ignoring traffic control devices, subsequently killing a pedestrian crossing the street.
Meeting the Four Elements Needed for Charges of Gross Vehicular Manslaughter While Intoxicated
There will be four distinct elements to the crime that must all be fulfilled in order for it to be considered gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated. If any one of the four elements can be disproved or contested, your attorney may be able to have the charges reduced or even dismissed entirely. The elements needed are:
- That the driver was operating the vehicle while under the influence of alcohol or drugs
- While the driver was operating the vehicle, any other misdemeanor was also committed that may cause the death of another
- The commission of the required misdemeanor occurred with gross negligence
- As a result of the prior 3 elements, the grossly negligent act caused by the intoxicated driver caused the death of another
These four elements are essential to being able to levy charges of gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated against you, and if your attorney can mount a defense disproving or eliminating any one of the conditions, the charges may no longer apply.
Note that it does not matter whether you intended to injure or kill someone when you got into the vehicle after drinking. You only need to be acting in a reckless manner.
If you have been arrested for gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, the first thing you should do is contact an experienced criminal defense attorney since creating a defense strategy for these charges can be complex. While each of the four elements must be proven to hold up in court, they can be complicated.
Driving Under the Influence of Alcohol or Drugs
In California, you are driving intoxicated if you are found to have:
- Driven with a measurable blood alcohol content of 0.08% or greater
- Driven while under the influence of drugs, whether legal or illicit
- Driven while displaying any signs or symptoms of intoxication
- Violated California’s under-21 zero-tolerance law by driving with a blood alcohol content of 0.05% or higher
Being able to contest these may give you a viable defense in your case.
Committing a Misdemeanor or Lawful Act That Could Cause Death
This is a very important point since you must be found to have committed an act that could cause death, but that act cannot be the DUI. It must be an additional misdemeanor offense or lawful act. While the act doesn’t need to be dangerous in ordinary circumstances, it must be potentially dangerous in the situation.
The Gross Negligence Qualifier
Gross negligence can only happen when someone acts in a reckless manner that results in a significant risk of injury or death, and any reasonable person would know that the act has a significant risk of injury or death. It cannot be a simple error in judgment or a careless act.
Being The Cause of Death of Another
The death that occurs in the initial incident must be the direct and natural result of the negligent conduct. While there may be other factors that contribute to the death, the gross negligence must be considered a substantial contributing factor.
The Penalties for Being Convicted of Gross Vehicular Manslaughter While Intoxicated
The penalties for being convicted of gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated are similar to being convicted of murder. If you are convicted you can expect to be placed on formal felony probation and to be assigned a probation officer.
You will also be fined a sum of up to $10,000 and may face imprisonment in state prison of either, 4, 6, or even 10 years. Even if you avoid a prison sentence, the DMV will enact a revocation of your driver’s license for a minimum of 3 years. Driving on this revoked license can come with further penalties that grow with each subsequent conviction of driving while suspended or revoked.
Prior convictions for similar offenses can also make the penalties more severe. Prior convictions of DUI, DUI causing injury, manslaughter while operating a boat, and vehicular manslaughter either ordinary or gross. Having a history with a conviction of any of these offenses can make the prison sentence a minimum of 15 years with a maximum of a life term.
Common Defenses for Fighting Charges of Gross Vehicular Manslaughter While Intoxicated
Anytime someone is killed in a vehicle crash is a tragedy, and in many cases the individual who was driving is wracked with guilt, often blaming themselves and pleading guilty or no contest. While law enforcement may be quick to blame you, working with a qualified lawyer can help show the court that it wasn’t your fault or can help you avoid lengthy prison terms. Your criminal defense attorney will help create a defense strategy that helps you fight the charges being laid.
Not Being Intoxicated During The Alleged Incident
In some cases, your attorney may be able to mount a defense against the actual evidence that pointed to you being under the influence since many symptoms of shock due to the accident can appear to be symptoms of being intoxicated. This can also include questioning the validity of the chemical test results, or the procedures of the law enforcement officers that participated in your arrest.
The Misdemeanor or Lawful Act Was Not Committed With Gross Negligence
If you are facing charges of gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, working with an attorney may help you show that your actions were not negligent, even if they were not correct. Driving is a complex process and sometimes requires you to make sudden decisions, and even if they were made in good faith they can be wrong and result in death or injury.
You Believe You Acted Reasonably in Extenuating Circumstances or an Emergency Situation
If you and your attorney can show that your actions were not negligent and that they were aligned with the same judgment and care that any reasonable person would show, you may be able to show that you did not act with gross negligence. This can be difficult to prove depending on the circumstances of the accident, which is another reason working with an attorney is in your best interest.
Your Gross Negligence Was Not The Cause of the Victim’s Death
Cause and effect in vehicle crashes can be very complicated, and even when there was DUI or gross negligence involved, it can be difficult to show that your negligence was the direct cause of someone’s death. This can sometimes be due to negligence of another party or other contributing factors, which can work in your favor. This defense will often involve working with witnesses and other evidence that may exonerate you.
If You Have Been Charged With Gross Vehicular Manslaughter While Intoxicated
If you or someone close to you has been arrested and charged with gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated your freedom is in jeopardy and you should work with an expert criminal defense attorney. Not only will they know the ins and outs of the California criminal system, but they will have priceless experience in putting together the best defense for your case. You will be able to discuss the details of your case in a confidential environment and will have the best chance at beating the charges or reducing the penalties imposed in the event of a conviction.