Understanding Vehicular Manslaughter in California

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If you have been charged with vehicular manslaughter in California, you probably have a lot of questions, such as, “What is vehicular manslaughter?” Or, “Is vehicular manslaughter a felony?” 

Maybe you are wondering, “What is the vehicular manslaughter sentencing scheme in California?” 

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.

If you have any questions, please contact the California criminal defense lawyers at the Law Offices of Kerry L. Armstrong, APLC.

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.

Another example is someone who is driving while talking on the phone or texting and who accidentally hits and kills a pedestrian.

Possible penalties include a fine of up to $1,000, imprisonment in the county jail for up to one year, and suspension of your driver’s license.

Typically, the license suspension is for a year; however, it can vary depending on the specific facts of each case.

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.

They stated 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.

An example of gross negligence could be someone driving 50 mph over the speed limit on an interstate highway.

A reasonable person would understand that driving this way is reckless and would likely cause someone’s death in an accident.

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.

If charged as a misdemeanor, the maximum penalty is up to one year of jail and a $1,000 fine.

The possible penalties for a felony conviction include two, four, or six years’ imprisonment, a fine of up to $10,000, and suspension of your driver’s license for up to three years.

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.

For example, someone might try to crash their car deliberately and try to make it look like an accident to recover the insurance money.

If they accidentally kill someone in the process, that would be vehicular manslaughter for financial gain.

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, plus at least three years suspension of your driver’s license.

Vehicular Manslaughter (or Gross Vehicular Manslaughter) While Intoxicated

A conviction of gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated requires proof of both intoxication 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.

Gross vehicular manslaughter is a felony. Penalties include imprisonment of four, six, or ten years in state prison, plus a $10,000 fine.

If the person has prior convictions of the same type, they could receive a prison sentence of 15 years to life.

When Does Vehicular Manslaughter Become Homicide?

Certain vehicular homicide cases that would otherwise be treated as manslaughter are considered deserving of prosecution as murder.

The prosecution must prove that the driver acted with a wanton and conscious disregard for life.

This may occur when the defendant has a prior DUI conviction and it can be shown that he or she received either education regarding the dangers of drunken driving or a specific warning about those dangers at the time of the prior conviction (or later). 

Gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated where the person has prior DUI convictions is also called a Watson murder in California, based on a 1981 case, People v. Watson.

Most often, convictions of this type are charged as second-degree murder. A second-degree murder charge requires that the prosecution proves the person driving acted with malice aforethought.

It does not require proof that someone intentionally acted to kill someone, but that they intentionally engaged in an action that a reasonable person would know could seriously harm or kill someone else.

The California Supreme Court in Watson held that the action of driving while intoxicated could meet the requirement of malice aforethought.

A second-degree murder charge carries a penalty of 15 years to life in prison and a $10,000 fine. 

What Should I Do If I’ve Been Charged with Vehicular Manslaughter?

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. 

The attorneys at the Law Offices of Kerry L. Armstrong, APLC, are experienced in vehicular manslaughter matters and will give your case the special attention it deserves.

We believe everyone deserves the chance to defend their name in court and we do not back down from challenging cases. 

Contact the Law Offices of Kerry L. Armstrong, APLC, to schedule your consultation today.

Author Photo

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.