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How Can Prosecutors Prove a Vehicular Manslaughter Case?

Posted by Ronald D. Hedding, ESQ. | May 11, 2022

Under California Penal Code 192(c) PC, vehicular manslaughter charges can be filed against someone if they drive their vehicle negligently or unlawfully and then causes the death of another person.

Simply put, if somebody dies in a car accident in California, you might face vehicular manslaughter charges if you were driving negligently or doing something illegal.

The severity of the penalties will always depend on the level of negligence (ordinary or gross), whether you were driving under the influence, and your criminal history. Some common examples of PC 192(c) vehicular manslaughter cases include:

  • A driver texting on their cell phone while driving and striking and killing a pedestrian who was crossing the street;
  • A driver excessively speeding and driving recklessly causes a serious accident that kills the other driver or passenger.

One of the primary factors in prosecuting a vehicular manslaughter case is whether the driver acted with ordinary or gross negligence.

In this article by our Los Angeles criminal defense attorneys, we will cover this topic in more detail below.

What is During the Commission of an Unlawful Act?

Under Penal Code 192(c), vehicular manslaughter can occur differently. For example, if you cause someone's death while driving “in the commission of an unlawful act,” that is not a felony, but it is considered vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence.

California Penal Code 192(c) PC Vehicular Manslaughter

Under California law, gross negligence is described as “the lack of care or an extreme departure from what a reasonably careful person would do in the same situation to prevent harm to oneself or others.”

Gross negligence is more severe than simple negligence but does not rise to the level of extreme recklessness.  There is no complex legal definition that spells out when somebody acts grossly negligent, but California courts generally describe it as follows:

  • significant negligence,
  • an extreme departure from ordinary conduct, and
  • failing to exercise the care that even a careless person would use.

For instance, if you are texting while driving and hitting and killing a pedestrian at an intersection, you could face vehicular manslaughter charges. If you kill somebody accidentally while committing a felony, you might face California Penal Code 187 PC murder charges.

What is Driving with Ordinary or Gross Negligence?

Under California law, a vehicle driver acts with ordinary negligence when they are:

  • simply careless,
  • inattentive, distracted, or
  • commit an error in judgment.

Gross negligence, however, is conduct much more severe than ordinary negligence that is reckless enough that a reasonable person would expect a high risk of death or great bodily injury to occur.

If a driver engaged in felonious conduct, meaning conduct punishable as a felony, they likely engaged in grossly negligent conduct.  If a driver engaged in conduct that might be a traffic infraction, such as speeding, they likely engaged in only ordinarily negligent conduct.

What Are the Common Mistakes?

Vehicular manslaughter is a severe crime.  Not only can you be sent to prison if you're convicted of this type of offense, but you could also be responsible for thousands of dollars in restitution related to whatever happened in the accident that led to the charges.

Standard mistake number one is not getting a professional advocate on your side right away.  I know how to use accident reconstruction experts.  I know what the prosecutors and police will do in a case and how to investigate and defend these matters. Don't make the mistake of just waiting for the court date and hoping for the best.  Hire an attorney right away. 

Another common mistake as it relates to these vehicular manslaughter cases is talking to the police about what happened.  Don't talk to the police.  Let your attorney do the talking for you.    Also, you want to get an attorney involved immediately because your insurance company may be trying to talk to you. The police may be able to get their hands on that statement, especially since it's probably going to be tape-recorded, and obviously, you don't want to say or do anything that puts you in a worse position.

Another thing I wouldn't do, which I think is a mistake, is try to investigate and deal with the case yourself.  Again, let your attorney do that.  Vehicular manslaughter is when you're driving a vehicle, doing something in a grossly negligent manner, and it leads to the death of another person.  But, a lot of times, there are defenses to these cases. 

Often, we can get an accident reconstruction expert involved and show that the accident was not your fault.  Then, they don't have what we call causation.  This means that if you didn't cause the injuries to the other people – maybe some condition on the road did, perhaps the person caused their injuries, or maybe a third party caused it.  If you didn't cause it, though, then you're not responsible for the death.  If you're not responsible for the end, you cannot be charged with vehicular manslaughter.

What are the Related Offenses for Penal Code 192(c)?

  • Penal Code 191.5 PC – gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated,
  • Penal Code 187 PC – DUI Watson murder,
  • Vehicle Code 23152(a) VC – driving under the influence,
  • Vehicle Code 23152(b) VC – driving with a BAC of .08 or greater,
  • Vehicle Code 23152(f) VC – driving under the influence of drugs,

What Are the California Criminal Jury Instructions for Vehicular Manslaughter?

According to the jury instructions for vehicular manslaughter, CALCRIM 593, what do prosecutors have to prove to find someone guilty? Penal Code Section 192(c)(2) controls this crime.

However, you have to look at the Cal Crim Jury Instructions.  Those are used in California, Los Angeles, and other counties surrounding LA. To prove if a defendant is guilty of vehicular manslaughter with ordinary negligence, the People must prove:

  • that while driving a car, the defendant committed some misdemeanor or infraction that was unlawful and was committed with ordinary negligence;
  • the misdemeanor or infraction or negligent act was dangerous to the life of humans under the circumstances of its commission; and
  • that the misdemeanor or infraction or negligent act caused the death.

This would be charged as a misdemeanor.  This is where somebody is driving on the road, doing something stupid, and some other person gets killed.

California Criminal Jury Instructions for Vehicular Manslaughter

For example, let's say someone was in a crosswalk, and the driver didn't see that person.  They went through the crosswalk, hit the person, and killed them.  That sounds like a good case for vehicular manslaughter.

Each of the elements above has to be proven.  If the prosecutors can't verify all three, they cannot prove that crime.  If that's the only crime the person is charged with – vehicular manslaughter – there would be a not-guilty verdict, and the person walks.

Sometimes in complaints, the prosecutors charge more than one crime because they are trying to shoot a spray gun, so to speak, and see if they can get at least one of the convictions to stick so they can punish the individual involved.

Do All the Factors Have to Be Proven for a Penal Code 192(c) PC Conviction?

Yes. The jury instructions are essential in vehicular manslaughter cases because sometimes the prosecutors cannot prove each of the elements of the crime. For example, element two, the defense, was trying to challenge and say whatever the person did was not dangerous to human life.

In our crosswalk example, let's say the person didn't see the individual in the crosswalk.  It was late at night, and there was no light near the crosswalk, and it wasn't prudent to cross there.

Los Angeles Criminal Defense Lawyer

Sometimes, the party who ends up getting killed can be the negligent one versus the individual who has the unfortunate circumstance of having killed somebody. That is compounded with the person charged with a crime, which could affect them for the rest of their lives.

So, suppose you or a loved one is charged with a misdemeanor of vehicular manslaughter or any vehicular manslaughter-related offense. In that case, you have to get somebody like me who's been doing this for 30 years.

You need a defense lawyer who knows the jury instructions and how to fight these cases and knows when someone is guilty and should take a deal and when someone is innocent and should fight the case and try to win the case at a jury trial.

Pick up the phone.  Make the call.  Ask for a meeting with Ron Hedding.  I stand at the ready to help you. The Hedding Law Firm is located in LA County, and we offer a free case evaluation by phone or the contact form.

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About the Author

Ronald D. Hedding, ESQ.

Ronald D. Hedding, Esq., is the founding member of the Hedding Law Firm. Mr. Hedding has an extensive well-rounded legal background in the area of Criminal Law. He has worked for the District Attorney's Office, a Superior Court Judge, and as the guiding force behind the Hedding Law Firm. His multi-faceted experience sets Mr. Hedding apart and puts him in an elite group of the best Criminal Defense Attorneys in Southern California.