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In California, involuntary manslaughter is defined as the unintentional killing of another resulting from the defendant committing either certain unlawful acts or a lawful act without due caution. While opinions of legal experts differ, many contend that a charge of attempted manslaughter may be brought even if the victim suffers injuries not resulting in death.

If a death qualifying as manslaughter results from the operation of a motor vehicle, a defendant in California may also be charged with one of the several types of vehicular manslaughter. Here are brief descriptions of each of these offenses.

Misdemeanor Vehicular Manslaughter

A conviction of misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter requires proof of “ordinary” or “simple” negligence; that is, acting without ordinary care. While this determination is inherently subjective, it may be established by evidence of a motor vehicle code violation, such as failure to observe a traffic signal.

Possible penalties include a fine of up to $1,000 and imprisonment in county jail for up to one year.

In a recent high profile case involving a pedestrian killed by Kardashian family member Caitlyn Jenner’s vehicle, prosecutors elected not to pursue this offense, stating that they could not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Ms. Jenner’s conduct was unreasonable.

Vehicular Manslaughter With Gross Negligence

As its name suggests, gross negligence is considered more egregious than its “ordinary” counterpart. It occurs when a person acts in a reckless way that creates a high risk of death or serious bodily injury, but only if a reasonable person would have understood that the conduct created such a risk.

Unlike misdemeanor vehicular homicide, a California gross negligence charge is a so-called “wobbler” offense. This means that, depending upon the specific facts and the defendant’s criminal history, it may be brought as a misdemeanor or felony charge. The possible penalties for a felony conviction include between tow and six years’ imprisonment and a fine of up to $10,000.

Vehicular Manslaughter for Financial Gain

This offense requires proof that the death, while still accidental, occurred when the defendant deliberately caused or participated in a vehicle collision with the intent of making a false or fraudulent insurance claim. No proof of the defendant’s negligence or intent to cause death is required. Penalties upon conviction are severe: a fine of up to $10,000 and incarceration for up to ten years.

Vehicular Manslaughter (or Gross Vehicular Manslaughter) While Intoxicated

A conviction of this offense requires proof of both intoxications comparable to that in a prosecution for driving under the influence (DUI) and negligence or gross negligence. If the prosecution can establish negligence but not intoxication, the defendant may still be convicted of vehicular manslaughter.

Certain vehicular homicide cases that would otherwise be treated as manslaughter are considered deserving of prosecution as murder. This may occur when the defendant has prior DUI convictions and it can be shown that he or she received either education regarding the dangers or drunken driving or a specific warning about those dangers at the time of the prior conviction.

If you have been charged with vehicular manslaughter, the possibility of criminal punishment may not seem like your foremost concern. Whatever the circumstances, you are undoubtedly experiencing strong feelings of grief and guilt. Unfortunately, these emotions can affect your judgment, and a prompt consultation with experienced and effective legal counsel will help you understand the process, inform you of your rights and improve your chances of obtaining the best possible outcome.

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Kerry L. Armstrong


Attorney Kerry Armstrong opened up his law firm in June 2007. Mr. Armstrong attended Thomas Jefferson School of Law, San Diego, California, and received his B.S. from Middle Tennessee State University. Kerry L. Armstrong became certified by the State Bar of California’s Board of Legal Specialization for criminal law in August 2020, making him one of the few criminal defense attorneys with a criminal law legal specialization certificate in San Diego County.  Between 2014 – 2019, Mr. Armstrong was selected for inclusion in the California Super Lawyers list, an honor only awarded to 5% of the nation’s attorneys.

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