When driving with “ordinary negligence” causes another person’s death… with or without DUI.
California misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter means the defendant failed to drive a car with the care and caution of a reasonable person and thereby caused an accident that resulted in another person’s death.
As our Los Angeles DUI Lawyers explain, conviction requires evidence that:
- the defendant committed an unlawful act consisting of a misdemeanor, infraction, or otherwise lawful act in a way that might cause death;
- the defendant committed the unlawful act with ordinary negligence; and
- the defendant’s act of ordinary negligence caused another person’s death.
Ordinary negligence means that someone acts, or fails to act, with the care and caution of a reasonable person. It applies to acts of inattention, carelessness, and mistaken judgment that a responsible person would not commit in similar circumstances.
To prove a defendant acted with ordinary negligence in a California misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter case, the prosecutor must show the defendant committed a misdemeanor or infraction traffic offense, or some otherwise lawful act that was dangerous under the circumstances.
Cause of Death
To be convicted of California misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter, the defendant’s act of ordinary negligence must cause the death of another person. This means the other person’s death must be a direct, natural, and probable consequence of the defendant’s negligent act and would not have occurred without it.
A natural and probable consequence is one that a reasonable person would know is likely to happen if nothing unusual intervenes. In deciding whether a consequence is natural and probable, consider all of the circumstances established by the evidence.
There may be more than one cause of death. An act causes death only if it is a substantial factor in causing the death. A substantial factor is more than a trivial or remote factor. However, it does not need to be the only factor that causes the death.
California Misdemeanor Vehicular Manslaughter While DUI
A defendant can be convicted of California misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter whether or not the prosecutor also proves DUI (driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, intoxication). However, proving DUI makes higher penalties and sentences more likely if the defendant gets convicted. (See below.)
Also understand that the prosecutor cannot prove the defendant caused a fatal accident by proving he or she was DUI. California law always requires the prosecutor to prove the defendant caused a fatal accident because they committed a negligent act other than DUI.
Sentencing and Punishment
A California vehicular manslaughter conviction that involves ordinary negligence, but not DUI, can only be punished as a misdemeanor. Misdemeanor punishment is defined by a maximum of one year imprisonment in county jail.
A California vehicular manslaughter conviction that involves ordinary negligence and DUI can be punished either as a misdemeanor or a felony. Felony punishment is defined by a minimum of one year imprisonment in state prison and often requires much more.
While ordinary negligence increases the likelihood a California vehicular manslaughter defendant will receive misdemeanor punishment, proving DUI allows a judge to impose felony punishment. The judge’s decision will be based on the facts and circumstances of a particular case.
Not all negligence is ordinary negligence. Negligence that is so far removed from the way an ordinarily careful person would have acted in the same situation that it demonstrates disregard for human life or indifference to the consequences to others is called gross negligence. Gross negligence involves excessive risks of bodily harm and death to others.
Whether they involve DUI or not, convictions for California gross vehicular manslaughter are always punished as felonies.
Relevant California Vehicular Manslaughter Sentencing Laws
Ordinary negligence + non-DUI driving:maximum one-year county jail sentence [California Penal Code section 193(c)(2)].
Ordinary negligence + DUI driving: potential one-year county jail sentence; maximum four-year state prison sentence [California Penal Code section 191.5(c)(2)].
Gross negligence + non-DUI driving: potential one-year county jail sentence; maximum six-year state prison sentence [California Penal Code section 193(c)(1)].
Gross negligence + DUI driving: potential one-year county jail sentence; maximum ten-year state prison sentence [California Penal Code section 191.5(c)(1)].
Lesser Included Offenses
California misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter charges that include DUI accusations automatically include the following additional charge:
- California DUI Causing Injury [California Vehicle Code 23153].
DUI Cannot Serve as the Unlawful Act Causing Death
While proving a DUI offense satisfies the first requirement, it cannot satisfy the second requirement of proving an unlawful act. California gross vehicular manslaughter while DUI always requires the prosecutor to prove the defendant committed an unlawful act in addition to DUI that resulted in another person’s death. (People v. Soledad (1987) 190 Cal.App.3d 74, 81 [235 Cal.Rptr. 208].)
The Unlawful Act Causing Death Need Not Be Inherently Dangerous
Proving the defendant committed an unlawful act in addition to DUI does not require proving the defendant committed an “inherently dangerous” misdemeanor or infraction. Rather, it only requires proving the defendant committed some act that was dangerous under the circumstances. Acts of gross negligence are dangerous by definition. (People v. Wells (1996) 12 Cal.4th 979, 982 [50 Cal.Rptr.2d 699, 911 P.2d 1374].)
A Lawful Act Committed with Negligence That Causes Death Is an Unlawful Act
Proving the defendant committed an unlawful act in addition to DUI does not require proving the defendant violated any particular law. Proving the defendant committed a lawful act with negligence, that is, without reasonable caution and care, is sufficient to prove the defendant committed an unlawful act. (People v. Thompson (2000) 79 Cal.App.4th 40, 53 [93 Cal.Rptr.2d 803]; “Committing a lawful act in an unlawful manner simply means to commit a lawful act with negligence….”)