Review of California's Vehicular Assault Laws and Defenses
Vehicular assault is a type of assault involving the use of a vehicle to cause harm or threaten another person, which is frequently associated with other traffic violations.
For example, in a situation where a driver acts recklessly while driving a vehicle at excessive speeds resulting in injury to a pedestrian or another driver, they could be held for criminal reckless driving and assault with a vehicle.
Further, there are other types of traffic offenses that could lead to vehicular assault charges in California, such as driving while under the influence and driving without a license.
Vehicular assault in California is a felony crime and may occur in instances of road rage, fleeing and evading police, domestic violence, drug disputes, or other conflicts between persons.
Accidentally striking another with a vehicle is generally not a felony vehicular assault as it's a willful or purposeful crime, such as when there is an attempt to run someone down with their vehicle.
Our Los Angeles criminal defense attorneys are providing a review of the laws below, along with the penalties, related offenses, and the best strategies to fight the charges.
The Applicable Statute
California does not have a separate statute that specifically criminalizes the use of a vehicle when committing an assault.
Vehicular assault instead falls under the umbrella of California's statute on assault with a deadly weapon or instrument. Penal Code 245(a)(1) says:
- “Anyone who commits an assault on a person with a deadly weapon or instrument, other than a firearm, will be punished by imprisonment in the state prison for up to four years, or in a county jail for not more than one year, or a fine up to $10.000, or both.”
Although the statute does not expressly mention it, California law clearly anticipates that perpetrators of assault may use a vehicle as a deadly weapon or instrument.
California Vehicle Code Section 13351.5(a) requires that the state Department of Motor Vehicles revoke the perpetrator's driver's license for using a vehicle to commit a felony assault:
- “After receipt of a certified abstract of the record showing someone was convicted of a felony for a violating Penal Code 245 PC, and that a vehicle was found by the court to constitute the deadly weapon or instrument for the offense, the department immediately will revoke the privilege of that person to drive a motor vehicle.”
Elements of the Crime
Under California Criminal Jury Instruction 875, a defendant commits Penal Code 245(a)(1) assault with a deadly weapon only when:
- the defendant acted with a deadly lethal weapon or instrument in a way to bring about direct application of force on a person,
- the force was likely to produce great bodily injury,
- the defendant acted willfully, and
- the defendant was aware of facts that would lead a reasonable person to realize that the act would directly and probably result in the application of force to produce great bodily harm.
Under California law, a great bodily injury is described as a significant, or substantial physical injury. For example, broken bones, concussion, serious abrasions or lacerations.
Vehicular assault is a specific intent crime. The defendant must intend that the vehicle strike a person or otherwise act willingly on purpose in a way that a reasonable person would believe would result in that force.
Put simply, under this statute, someone acts “willfully” when they do something on purpose. It's not necessary for the prosecutor to prove the defendant had the intent to break the law or harm anyone.
In some cases, we might be able to negotiate with the prosecutor for a reduced charges or even a case dismissal.
Further, through our prefiling process, we might be able to persuade the prosecutor from filing formal criminal charges before court.
Punishments for Vehicular Assault
As the above quote of Penal Code 245(a)(1) shows, vehicular assault is a felony punishable:
- by imprisonment in state prison for two, three, or four years, or in a county jail for not exceeding one year, or
- by a fine not exceeding ten thousand dollars ($10,000), or both the fine and imprisonment.
A conviction could count as a “strike” under California's three strikes law.
Penal Code 245(d)(1) elevates the penalty to up to three, four, or five years imprisonment if the person whom the vehicle struck was a peace officer or firefighter and the defendant knew or should have known so.
A felony conviction could also result in adverse immigration consequences for non-citizens. They could be deported or denied entry into the United States.
Further, a felony conviction will result in your right to own or possess a firearm.
Other crimes related to vehicular assault include the following:
- evading a police officer in a vehicle - Vehicle Code 2800.1 VC,
- felony reckless evading – Vehicle Code 2800.2 VC,
- evading causing injury or death – Vehicle Code 2800.3 VC,
- driving under the influence – Vehicle Code 23152 VC,
- vehicular manslaughter – Penal Code 192(c) PC,
- vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated – Penal Code 191.5 PC,
- attempted murder – Penal Code 664/187 PC,
- misdemeanor resisting arrest under Penal Code 148(a).
Best Defenses to Vehicular Assault
Readers should note that in addition to facing a charge of vehicular assault, you are normally in a situation where you are facing additional charges, such as reckless driving or driving under the influence.
If someone was killed due to your unlawful driving, you could be facing much more serious charges of vehicular manslaughter, especially in a situation where you were under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
There are situations, however, where you might have harmed another person, but not face charges of vehicular assault. For example, perhaps it was an accident and not a deliberate act.
If we can make a reasonable argument you accidently injured somebody in an auto accident, even if the injury was severe, you could have a good chance at avoiding a conviction, unless there are aggravating factors, such as driving with no regard for the safety of others.
There are many factors that have to be reviewed when facing assault with a deadly weapon charges for assault with a vehicle. If you didn't intend to commit the assault, it must be proven you were acting recklessly in some way.
Because vehicular assault is a specific intent crime requiring a willful act, a defendant may defend a vehicular assault charge with evidence that the vehicle striking the person was instead a mistake or accident.
The defendant may even have been careless in operating the vehicle, as long as the degree of carelessness does not rise to the level of leading a reasonable person to realize that the vehicle would strike a person with force likely to cause great bodily injury.
Misidentification of the vehicle's driver may be another defense, for instance, if the defendant was only a passenger rather than a driver of the vehicle.
And if the striking of the victim was at such low speed and force as not likely to cause great bodily harm, then the defendant's evidence may defeat the vehicular assault charge.
Eisner Gorin LLP is based in Los Angeles County and you can contact us for an initial consultation at (877) 781-1570.