DUI’s involving a death are very hard. It’s traumatic to be in any car accident where a person lost their life. If you were driving under the influence when it happened, it’s natural to blame yourself—but remember that you did not set out to hurt anyone. The prosecutor will blame everything that happened on you, and you have to be ready to defend yourself. You should not have to go to prison for something that was truly an accident.
When a DUI causes a death in California, the case becomes far more serious. The consequences are also steep. You could be tried on any of three possible charges:
- Vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated (as a misdemeanor or a felony)
- Gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated (a felony)
- DUI murder (a felony)
You should understand each of these charges in detail and how they will affect your life. You should also know how to defend yourself in court so that you get the least damaging outcome possible.
Vehicular Manslaughter DUI in California
To be found guilty of vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, the prosecution has to prove four things:
- That you drove under the influence
- That you broke some other law (such as speeding) in addition to your DUI
- That you acted with “negligence”
- That your negligence directly lead to someone’s death
Not every accident involving a death and drunk driving meets these criteria. For example, let’s say you had some drinks at a bar and drove home—obeying all other traffic laws. On the way, someone ran across the street in front of you with no warning. You struck that individual and they later died from the injury. This is not vehicular manslaughter DUI, because you didn’t break any law other than DUI law.
But let’s say you did break another law. It still might not count as DUI manslaughter unless you clearly acted with negligence. Negligence means you did something a reasonable person wouldn’t do, that endangered someone else.
For example, let’s say that while driving drunk you illegally passed another car. It was while you passed this car that you hit someone. This is tragic, but reasonable people pass illegally all the time. If the coast was clear when you started to pass, you may not have been negligent.
This is the case a DUI defense lawyer will build for you. They will show that even though you drove drunk and someone died, you weren’t acting negligently in a way that directly caused their death. This can get your case knocked down from a DUI manslaughter to a regular DUI charge. That’s not a small change—it’s the difference between hard prison time and a minimal jail sentence.
Gross Vehicular Manslaughter DUI in California
Gross vehicular manslaughter is identical to regular vehicular manslaughter, except for two things:
- The prosecution must prove that you acted with “gross” negligence
- Gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated is always tried as a felony.
“Gross” negligence is much more careless than ordinary negligence. It means you acted in a completely reckless way, that anyone would know is potentially life-threatening. For example, speeding through stop lights or driving into oncoming traffic would count as gross negligence.
The sentences for gross vehicular manslaughter are more severe than regular vehicular manslaughter. Many regular vehicular manslaughter cases are tried as misdemeanors—usually if it seems you didn’t mean to hurt anyone, if it was a first offense, or if you were not far over the legal limit. But gross vehicular manslaughter DUI is a felony and carries much harder penalties. This includes a minimum of 4 years in prison, and up to 10 years in prison.
California’s DUI Murder Law
The most serious DUI charge you can face is DUI murder. DUI murder implies that you set out driving drunk with a conscious disregard for human life.
What this means legally is murky. It does not mean you got behind the wheel of your car and said, “I’m going to go take a life.” It means that you got behind the wheel of your car knowing that driving drunk is likely to take a life.
If you weren’t conscious of that fact while you drove drunk, the prosecution can’t convict you of DUI murder. This is why DUI murder is normally only charged when you have prior DUI’s on your record. The state of California makes all DUI convicts sign a statement (or verbally acknowledge) that they know driving drunk can cause death. That way, if you are later involved in another DUI and someone loses their life, the prosecutor can say you knew exactly what you were doing.
In practice, it’s not always that clear cut. By definition, you were impaired when you got into the vehicle. It’s hard to say you were conscious of the risks that your actions posed. If you were too drunk to drive, you were probably too drunk to remember court documents from years earlier.
That’s why DUI murder charges are rare. Prosecutors usually only aim for DUI murder in the most blatant cases, or when an individual has caused previous accidents driving drunk. The penalties for DUI murder include a minimum 15 years in prison and possibly life in prison.
Your DUI Does Not Have to Ruin Your Life
All of these charges are serious. But, as much as you may be afraid of the penalties, you should remember that the prosecutor is afraid of losing the case. Proving gross vehicular manslaughter is harder than proving regular vehicular manslaughter, and proving DUI murder is harder still. If they see that you have an experienced, reputable DUI lawyer—and that you are going to fight tooth and nail—they get worried. This is how even the most serious DUI cases can sometimes be downgraded to a lesser charge.
Let us connect you with a Los Angeles DUI lawyer who knows how to deal with cases involving a death. We will get you a 100% FREE consultation. Just fill out the form to the right or call (310) 896-2724 and get your free consultation today.