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Sometimes called "vehicular homicide," vehicular manslaughter charges result when someone dies in a traffic accident caused by negligent or reckless driving. Most states have specific laws regarding vehicular manslaughter. However, some states classify this under the more general heading of criminally negligent homicide.
What is Vehicular Manslaughter?
If you unintentionally caused a vehicle accident that resulted in the death (or deaths) of a passenger in either car or a pedestrian, you may face vehicular manslaughter charges. States vary in how they define reckless, negligent, or dangerous driving. Typically, though, this includes behaviors such as driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol or excessive speeding.
Vehicular manslaughter and vehicular homicide are fairly recent offenses. Until the term originated, drivers who killed someone in an accident faced manslaughter charges. The severity of a manslaughter charge for a traffic accident led to the creation of vehicular manslaughter, which typically results in lighter penalties for those convicted.
What are the Penalties for Vehicular Manslaughter?
Vehicular manslaughter is classified as a felony with a wide range of penalties, which vary by state as well as by numerous mitigating and aggravating factors. These factors include whether the driver was DUI or behaving recklessly through actions such as texting, speeding, or failing to maintain lane position. Age of the victim also presents a possible aggravating factor.
Penalties are lighter than in regular homicide or manslaughter, because these charges assume unintentional actions caused the accident. Defendants may receive a deferred or suspended sentence, probation, or prison time, depending on the circumstances of the accident. However, some states do impose mandatory prison sentences for a vehicular manslaughter conviction, with sentences ranging between two and 20 years.
Penalties may also include non-traditional conditions imposed by the judge assigned to the case. For example, a defendant receiving probation after killing someone in an accident caused by texting while driving may be ordered to face a victim impact panel. These panels include groups of victims who impress upon the defendant the long-term impact and effect of his or her actions. The goal is to create a greater sense of empathy for others and prevent future occurrences of the behavior. This is also a popular penalty in cases of DUI.
If convicted of vehicular manslaughter, you may also have to pay damages to the victim's family, such as medical bills and lost income.
Degrees of Vehicular Manslaughter
Most states recognize varying degrees of vehicular manslaughter, which include varying levels of punishment. In particular, penalties for manslaughter convictions in which the driver was DUI are much higher than those in which the driver was sober.
In Georgia, for example, a DUI driver convicted of vehicular manslaughter faces first degree vehicular homicide charges, a felony with a maximum prison sentence of 15 years. If the accident involved a moving traffic offense instead, the charge is second degree vehicular homicide, which is a misdemeanor with a maximum sentence of one year in jail.
Variations by state are extreme. For example, if you commit vehicular manslaughter while under the influence in Alabama, conviction carries a maximum sentence of five years. The same crime in Minnesota, however, carries a maximum sentence of 30 years.
Additional Costs for Vehicular Manslaughter Charges
In addition to criminal charges and penalties, if you are convicted of vehicular manslaughter (and possibly if you are not), you typically face civil suit as well. If you plead guilty to the manslaughter charge, that plea may be used against you in a civil suit. In a criminal judgment, the judge may award compensatory damages like medical bills, but not punitive damages, such as pain and suffering. The family of the deceased may pursue those damages with a civil suit.
Your insurance company may also refuse to help pay these costs or defend you in a civil suit if you either plead guilty to the charges or a jury finds you guilty. The reason is that some insurance policies include provisions that felony-level actions negate the insurer's liability.
Felony convictions also come with personal costs in terms of background checks for future employment and civil liberties restrictions such as voting.