California’s law regarding Vehicular Manslaughter law is codified at California Penal Code section 191.5(c)): https://codes.findlaw.com/ca/penal-code/pen-sect-191-5.html

and California Penal Code section 192(c). This statute is similar to Involuntary Manslaughter (California Penal Code section 192(b)): https://codes.findlaw.com/ca/penal-code/pen-sect-192.html./

Both crimes entail the inadvertent/unintentional killing of another human being – typically through criminal negligence, reckless action, or in the course of committing a low-level crime (infraction or misdemeanor).

However, Vehicular Manslaughter obviously involves the defendant causing the victim’s death via the driving of a vehicle. As such, a defendant can also be charged with Vehicular Manslaughter if he or she committed a traffic violation that resulted in the death.

And discussed in far greater detail below, Vehicular Manslaughter itself is divided into different categories of increasing seriousness (which therefore entail greater punishments):

Vehicular Manslaughter (Pen. Code §§ 191.5(c) & 192(c))

If the defendant killed the victim while driving with “ordinary” (i.e., non-criminal) negligence, then he/she will only be charged with a misdemeanor.

This crime is often referred to as “Ordinary Vehicular Manslaughter” or “Misdemeanor Vehicular Manslaughter”.

Gross Vehicular Manslaughter (Pen. Code § 192(c)(1))

This involves “gross”/“criminal” negligence, and can be prosecuted as a misdemeanor or a felony per the Deputy District Attorney’s discretion. This is known as a “Wobbler” (California Penal Code section 17(b)): https://codes.findlaw.com/ca/penal-code/pen-sect-17.html

Vehicular Manslaughter While Intoxicated (Penal Code section 191.5(b))

If the defendant killed the victim while driving with a blood alcohol level of more than .08%, or while high on illegal narcotics, and while otherwise driving in an “ordinarily negligent” manner or while committing an infraction or misdemeanor, then he/she can be charged with a misdemeanor or a felony under this particular provision.

This crime is often referred to as “Vehicular Manslaughter While Intoxicated with Ordinary Negligence".

Gross Vehicular Manslaughter While Intoxicated (Penal Code section 191.5(a))

If the defendant was extremely drunk (e.g., his/her blood alcohol content was twice the legal limit), or was driving in a particularly reckless – i.e., “grossly negligent” -- manner (e.g., intentionally running red lights), or while committing a felony, and he/she killed someone, then he/she will almost certainly be charged with this particular offense, which is always charged as a felony.

This crime is often referred to as “Vehicular Manslaughter While Intoxicated with Gross Negligence".

Finally, in the most egregious cases involving Gross Vehicular Manslaughter While Intoxicated, the defendant can be charged with Second-Degree Murder (aka a “Watson Murder”) (California Penal Code section 187: (https://codes.findlaw.com/ca/penal-code/pen-sect-187.html (see below).

Homicide Crimes – Vehicular Manslaughter – “Wobblers”

As stated above, the prosecutor has the power to charge the defendant with either a felony or a misdemeanor, depending on the particulars of the case, for the following types of Vehicular Manslaughter crimes:

Gross Vehicular Manslaughter (California Penal Code section 192(c)(1)): https://codes.findlaw.com/ca/penal-code/pen-sect-192.html./

Vehicular Manslaughter While Intoxicated (Penal Code section 191.5(b))

Again, “Ordinary Vehicular Manslaughter” is always charged as a misdemeanor, and “Vehicular Manslaughter While Intoxicated with Gross Negligence" is always charged as a felony.

See, e.g., Judicial Council of California’s Criminal Jury Instructions (“CALCRIM”) number 593 (“Misdemeanor Vehicular Manslaughter -- Pen. Code § 192(c)(2)”): https://www.justia.com/criminal/docs/calcrim/500/593/

Homicide Crimes – Vehicular Manslaughter – “Strikes”

Unless the defendant is charged with a “Watson Murder” (California Penal Code section 187: (https://codes.findlaw.com/ca/penal-code/pen-sect-187.html

See People v. Watson (1981) 30 Cal.3d 290 at: https://caselaw.findlaw.com/ca-court-of-appeal/1838207.html

(discussed below), Vehicular Manslaughter will rarely be charged as a “Strike offense” (California Penal Code section 667(a)&(b)): https://codes.findlaw.com/ca/penal-code/pen-sect-667.html

The only exception would apply if the alleged offense involved Gross Vehicular Manslaughter While Intoxicated (Penal Code section 191.5(a)) while the defendant both committed a felony – such as fleeing from the police at a high rate of speed -- and caused either the victim severe physical harm before he/she died.

See California Penal Code section 1192.7 (“Serious felonies”), subsection (c)(8) (“any felony in which the defendant personally inflicts great bodily injury on any person, other than an accomplice”): https://codes.findlaw.com/ca/penal-code/pen-sect-1192-7.html.

Homicide Crimes – Vehicular Manslaughter – Pre-Files/Early Dismissals

Fortunately, Vehicular Manslaughter cases can often be favorably resolved either before actual criminal charges are filed or shortly thereafter.

With the help of highly respected accident reconstructionists with unimpeachable reputations, the Los Angeles Defense Attorney Law Firm (LADALF) may be able to convince the authorities that the death resulted through no fault of the defendant-driver, or at least in a manner where the decedent was at least partially at fault.

California Statutes – Homicide Crimes -- Vehicular Manslaughter

California Penal Code sections 191.5(c) & 192(c) (Vehicular Manslaughter): https://codes.findlaw.com/ca/penal-code/pen-sect-191-5.html & https://codes.findlaw.com/ca/penal-code/pen-sect-192.html./

To convict a defendant of this misdemeanor, the prosecutor (either from the DA’s Office or the City Attorney’s Office, which only prosecutes misdemeanors) must prove each of the following elements beyond a reasonable doubt:

  1. The defendant drove an automobile while committing an infraction or a misdemeanor, or while committing a legal act in an illegal way;

  2. The defendant’s action could foreseeably result in serious harm or death to another;

  3. At the time, the defendant acted in an ordinarily negligent manner; and

  4. That act resulted in the victim being killed.

See: CALCRIM no. 593 (“Misdemeanor Vehicular Manslaughter -- Pen. Code § 192(c)(2)”): https://www.justia.com/criminal/docs/calcrim/500/593/

California Penal Code section 192(c)(1) (Gross Vehicular Manslaughter)

If the defendant-driver was sober at the time he/she killed the victim under any of the circumstances described below, then he/she will be charged under this particular provision:

  1. The decedent died while the defendant drove in an unlawful manner that constituted either an infraction or a misdemeanor, though while committing “gross negligence”;

  2. The decedent died while the defendant drove in an unlawful manner that constituted a felony (and not necessarily while acting negligently);

  3. The decedent died while the defendant drove in a lawful manner, but otherwise while acting in a grossly negligent or reckless/dangerous way;

  4. The decedent died while the defendant was trying to stage a fake accident for insurance purposes while driving.

See: CALCRIM no. 592 (“Gross Vehicular Manslaughter (Pen. Code § 192(c)(1)”): https://www.justia.com/criminal/docs/calcrim/500/592/

California Penal Code section 191.5(b) (Vehicular Manslaughter While Intoxicated)

If the defendant-driver was driving under the influence of alcohol or illegal drugs, and was not otherwise driving in a grossly negligent or reckless/dangerous manner, or he/she committed a non-felony crime, then he/she will be prosecuted hereunder.

In addition, the prosecutor must prove the following:

  1. The defendant’s act either directly or proximately caused the death (i.e., the act was a substantial contributing factor); and

  2. The defendant acted in an ordinarily negligent manner; or

  3. The act could have foreseeably caused serious harm or death to another; or

  4. While intoxicated or high, the defendant executed a legal act in an unlawful manner.

If the defendant is 20 years old or less, then he/she can be charged with this crime if his/her blood alcohol content is over .05%.

See CALCRIM no. 591 (“Vehicular Manslaughter While Intoxicated - Ordinary Negligence: Pen. Code § 191.5(b)”): https://www.justia.com/criminal/docs/calcrim/500/591/

California Penal Code section 191.5(a) (Gross Vehicular Manslaughter While Intoxicated)

If while intoxicated or high, the defendant-driver caused the victim’s death while engaging in a felonious act or otherwise acted with gross negligence or in a reckless/dangerous way, then he/she will be prosecuted hereunder.

See CALCRIM number 590 (“Gross Vehicular Manslaughter While Intoxicated -- Pen. Code § 191.5(a)”).

“Watson Murder” (Second-Degree Murder)

If the defendant was previously convicted of any type of Vehicular Manslaughter: https://codes.findlaw.com/ca/penal-code/pen-sect-191-5.html or of Driving Under the Influence, specifically:

First-Time DUI (California Vehicle Code section 23152): https://codes.findlaw.com/ca/vehicle-code/veh-sect-23152.html

Second DUI (California Vehicle Code section 23540): https://codes.findlaw.com/ca/vehicle-code/veh-sect-23540.html

DUI Causing Injury (California Vehicle Code section 23153): https://codes.findlaw.com/ca/vehicle-code/veh-sect-23153.html

and the defendant was warned at his/her sentencing hearing that if he/she killed someone at any time in the future while driving while intoxicated (known as a “Watson advisement”), and he/she nevertheless (allegedly) did just that, then he/she will be charged with Second-Degree Murder (California Penal Code section 187: (https://codes.findlaw.com/ca/penal-code/pen-sect-187.html

Convictions and Sentencing Terms for Homicide Crimes – Vehicular Manslaughter

California Penal Code sections 191.5(c) & 192(c) (Vehicular Manslaughter): https://codes.findlaw.com/ca/penal-code/pen-sect-191-5.html & https://codes.findlaw.com/ca/penal-code/pen-sect-192.html./

Since this is a misdemeanor, at most a defendant convicted hereunder will be sentenced to one year in jail (assuming, of course, the judge actually orders jail time).

California Penal Code section 191.5(a) (Gross Vehicular Manslaughter)

If the conviction is for a misdemeanor, then, again, the maximum sentence is a year in jail.

However, if this particular charge results in a felony conviction, and the judge actually orders a prison term, then the range is 24, 36, or 72 months therein.

In addition, regardless of the nature of a conviction hereunder, the defendant’s driver’s license will be suspended for a minimum of 12 months.

See Pen. Code § 193(b): https://codes.findlaw.com/ca/penal-code/pen-sect-193.html

See also: CALCRIM no. 592 (“Gross Vehicular Manslaughter -- Pen. Code § 192(c)(1)”): https://www.justia.com/criminal/docs/calcrim/500/591/

California Penal Code section 191.5(b) (Vehicular Manslaughter While Intoxicated)

If the conviction hereunder is for a misdemeanor, then, again, the maximum sentence is a year in jail.

However, if this particular charge results in a felony conviction, and the judge actually orders a prison term, then the range is sixteen, 24, or 48 months therein. See Pen. Code § 191.5(c)(2). 

In addition, regardless of the nature of a conviction hereunder, the defendant’s driver’s license will be revoked for a minimum of 12 months.

California Penal Code section 191.5(a) (Gross Vehicular Manslaughter While Intoxicated)

Since this will always be a felony conviction, the judge will virtually always require a prison term ranging from 48 months, 72 months, or ten years. See: Pen. Code § 191.5(c)(1).

But if this is the defendant’s second conviction hereunder, or if he/she was previously convicted of Gross Vehicular Manslaughter under Pen. Code § 192(c)(1): https://codes.findlaw.com/ca/penal-code/pen-sect-192.html, or if he/she was previously convicted of a DUI (California Vehicle Code section 23152): https://codes.findlaw.com/ca/vehicle-code/veh-sect-23152.html, then the minimum prison sentence will be fifteen years up to life with possible parole. See Pen. Code § 191.5(d): https://codes.findlaw.com/ca/penal-code/pen-sect-191-5.html

In addition, the defendant’s driver’s license will be suspended for a minimum of 36 months.

California Penal Code section 187 (https://codes.findlaw.com/ca/penal-code/pen-sect-187.html) -- “Watson Murder” (Second-Degree Murder)

As with a Second-Degree Murder (California Penal Code section 192(a)&(b)): https://codes.findlaw.com/ca/penal-code/pen-sect-192.html conviction in general, the defendant, if convicted hereunder, will receive a prison term of fifteen years up to life with possible parole.

Defenses to Homicide Crimes -- Vehicular Manslaughter

Pursuant to CALCRIM, the following are all viable defenses to Vehicular Manslaughter or Vehicular Manslaughter While Intoxicated:

  1. The defendant did not commit any crime while driving;

  2. He/she did not commit a felony while driving (mitigation);

  3. He/she did not act in an ordinarily negligent manner while driving;

  4. He/she did not act in a grossly negligent manner while driving (mitigation);

  5. The defendant’s blood alcohol content was not above .08% at the time of the killing, nor was he/she under the influence of illegal drugs;

  6. The defendant’s act would not foreseeably result in serious harm or death;

  7. The defendant’s act did not directly or proximately result in the decedent’s demise;

  8. He/she was not previously convicted of Vehicular Manslaughter or of a DUI under (California Vehicle Code section 23152): https://codes.findlaw.com/ca/vehicle-code/veh-sect-23152.html

(mitigation).

See CALCRIM number 590 (“Gross Vehicular Manslaughter While Intoxicated -- Pen. Code § 191.5(a)”);

CALCRIM no. 591 (“Vehicular Manslaughter While Intoxicated - Ordinary Negligence: Pen. Code § 191.5(b)”): https://www.justia.com/criminal/docs/calcrim/500/591/

CALCRIM no. 592 (“Gross Vehicular Manslaughter -- Pen. Code § 192(c)(1)”): https://www.justia.com/criminal/docs/calcrim/500/592/

CALCRIM no. 593 (“Misdemeanor Vehicular Manslaughter -- Pen. Code § 192(c)(2)”): https://www.justia.com/criminal/docs/calcrim/500/593/

CALCRIM no. 594 (“Vehicular Manslaughter: Collision for Financial Gain -- Pen. Code § 192(c)(3)”): https://www.justia.com/criminal/docs/calcrim/500/594/

Examples of Homicide Crimes – Vehicular Manslaughter Cases Involving Celebrities

Rebecca Gayheart (Urban Legend, Beverly Hills 90210, Scream 2)

On or about June 15, 2001, actor Rebecca Gayheart was driving her SUV just above Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood. Unfortunately, she was speaking with someone on her mobile phone and therefore didn’t see Jorge Cruz (9 yrs. old) illegally crossing the street (i.e., not on a green light).

Gayheart plowed into him, severely injuring him. Tragically, he succumbed to his injuries the next day and passed away.

At least Gayheart was not intoxicated or high at the time of the incident, as confirmed by LAPD technicians who tested her shortly thereafter. Although she was cited at the scene, she was not arrested.

But four months later (Oct.) – and it remains unclear why the C.A.’s Office took so long to do so – Gayheart was charged with misdemeanor Vehicular Manslaughter (Penal Code section 192(c)). As with most misdemeanors, this one also entailed a max-jail-term of 12 months. Not long afterwards, she pled no contest to that misdemeanor.

One month later (late Nov.), the judge gave her an extremely lenient punishment: zero incarceration, three years of summary probation, a one-year driving suspension, a fine of approximately $2,500, and an order to make a television public service announcement about the importance of safe driving.

However, she was ordered to complete 750 hrs. of community service – or the equivalent of about 18 months of five-day weeks working eight hours per day. See eonline.com.

Vince Neil (Mötley Crüe)

On the night of Dec. 8, 1984, Mötley Crüe frontman Vince Neil (24 yrs. old) was raging with Hanoi Rocks drummer Nicholas Dingley (25), who had literally spent less than 24 hours in the United States on his first-ever visit. (He was here with his bandmates to kick off a nationwide tour opening for Mötley Crüe.)

This was at the peak of Mötley Crüe’s popularity, but Neil’s wild-man lifestyle was about to come to a sickening halt. After running out of alcohol, Neil and Dingley got into the former’s new Corvette, left Neil’s Hermosa Beach mansion, and drove to a local mini-mart.

Tragically, on the way, Neil accidentally swerved into the oncoming lane near the Strand and smashed directly into another vehicle heading in the opposite direction. He thereby inflicted serious physical harm on the other vehicle’s driver and passenger -- Daniel Smithers (20) and Lisa Hogan (18). Hogan slipped into a coma for almost five weeks.

But that wasn’t the worst part, which involved the killing of Dingley. Only Neil escaped serious harm, and perhaps the fact that his blood alcohol level was .17% (70% higher than the then-legal limit of .10%) somehow prevented that.

Because of these circumstances, the DA’s Office prosecuted him for Gross Vehicular Manslaughter While Intoxicated (Pen. Code section 191.5(a)).

Neil was lucky he hadn’t been previously convicted of a DUI ((California Vehicle Code section 23152): https://codes.findlaw.com/ca/vehicle-code/veh-sect-23152.html or he would have been charged with a Watson Murder -- California Penal Code section 187: (https://codes.findlaw.com/ca/penal-code/pen-sect-187.html.)

Eight months later (July ’85), he pled guilty to that charge, as well as DUI (Driving Under the Influence) Causing Injury (California Vehicle Code section 23153): https://codes.findlaw.com/ca/vehicle-code/veh-sect-23153.html

Two months later (Sept.), the judge gave him a shockingly lenient sentence: one month in the county jail (of which he would only serve half because of good-time credits); five years’ formal probation; 200 hrs. of community service; and approximately $2.6 million in victim restitution.

If he had rolled the dice at trial and been convicted, the judge could have sentenced him to a maximum of almost nine years in prison. See latimes.com.

Examples of the Los Angeles Defense Attorney Law Firm’s Vehicular Manslaughter Cases

People v. R.M.: The DA’s Office prosecuted LADALF’s client for Second-Degree Murder (Penal Code section 187), aka "Watson Murder", because of a prior DUI conviction (California Vehicle Code section 23540): https://codes.findlaw.com/ca/vehicle-code/veh-sect-23540.html (with a Watson advisement), and because he was allegedly intoxicated at the time of the purported victim’s death. Therefore, the client was facing a possible life sentence.

Specifically, the Deputy DA prosecuting the case alleged that the client had ran over a bicyclist while under the influence of alcohol.

Fortunately, LADALF’s founding attorney Ninaz Saffari worked with two of her favorite experts (including an accident reconstructionist), who helped her prove to the prosecutor the following:

  1. The client’s blood alcohol level was slightly less than the legal limit of .08% and so was not legally intoxicated; and

  2. The killing did not result from the client’s negligence.

Ninaz was therefore eager to push for trial, but the client understandably did not want to take any chances in light of the fact that he did have a prior DUI conviction with the advisement, he had been drinking prior to the incident, and the victim had been killed.

Result: Thus, the client took a greatly reduced plea to felony Gross Vehicular Manslaughter (Pen. Code section 192(c)) with thirty-six months’ incarceration (out in 18 months with good-time credits).

People v. K.E.: Client was charged with Gross Vehicular Manslaughter with a minimum 36-months’ prison term; permanent loss of her federal high-security clearance; termination from her high-level job; and deportation immediately after completing her prison term (she was a foreign national here on a work visa).

As she typically does in these types of cases, Ninaz worked with her favorite accident reconstructionist and was thereby able to convince the prosecutor that the purported victim had actually been the cause of the accident because he had been driving at an excessive rate of speed.

Ninaz also told the judge that she was immediately ready to proceed with trial, which put enormous pressure on the prosecutor to give the client a too-good-to-pass-up offer.

Result: The client took a greatly plea to misdemeanor Reckless Driving Causing Injury (California Vehicle Code section 23104) with no jail time, three hours of community service, and she was able to keep her security clearance, her career, and her legal resident status.

The Los Angeles Criminal Defense Attorney Law Firm (LADALF)

As a 17th-year criminal defense attorney, LADALF lead counsel Ninaz Saffari has defended many people facing homicide crimes, ranging from involuntary manslaughter to first-degree-murder with special circumstances (formerly a death penalty case). Many of these cases involve vehicular manslaughter, including where the client is alleged to have been intoxicated – and even where the client was previously convicted of a DUI and is therefore now facing a Second-Degree Murder charge. Her outstanding track record defending these types of cases speaks for itself.