The Crime of Vehicular Manslaughter in California - PC 192(c)
California Penal Code Section 192(c) PC defines the crime of vehicular manslaughter as driving a vehicle in a negligent or unlawful manner and thereby causing the death of another human being.
Each of these terms must be further defined, as many incidents in which someone's driving in the factual cause of another person's death are not punishable as manslaughter.
Readers should know that manslaughter is a form of homicide which is not murder because of mitigating factors.
Manslaughter is the killing of another human
In general, the killing of another human being is manslaughter, and not murder, when:
- the defendant acted in the heat of passion;
- under an unreasonable belief in the need for self-defense, or;
- without intending to kill anyone;
- but without wanting disregard for the value of human life.
Vehicular manslaughter under Penal Code Section 192(c) presents a specific scenario which is unfortunately very common in our highly motorized society.
To give readers a better understanding of California's vehicular manslaughter laws, our Los Angeles criminal defense lawyers are providing a detailed review below.
Negligent Conduct vs Intentional Conduct
The first distinction to make is between negligent conduct and intentional conduct.
If someone uses their vehicle as a weapon to strike another vehicle or a pedestrian and death results, the appropriate charge is Penal Code 187 PC murder.
The fact that a vehicle was employed does not change the calculus as opposed to any other dangerous or deadly weapon.
On the opposite side, conduct which is purely accidental, meaning the defendant was driving lawfully and a tragic accident simply occurred leading to someone's death, is not manslaughter, and may in fact not be criminal at all.
This leaves a middle category of negligent conduct, that is:
- conduct which the defendant knew, or;
- should have known was dangerous, but;
- does not rise to the level of intending to harm anyone.
This category of negligent conduct is further divided between ordinary negligence and gross negligence, with gross negligence being more serious.
Ordinary Negligence vs Gross Negligence
Under California law, a vehicle driver acts with ordinary negligence where they are:
- inattentive, or
- committing an error in judgment.
Gross negligence, on the other hand, is conduct more serious than ordinary negligence which is reckless enough that a reasonable person would expect a high risk of death or great bodily injury to result.
One shorthand is that a driver engaging in otherwise felonious conduct, meaning conduct punishable as a felony, is likely engaged in grossly negligent conduct.
A driver engaged in conduct which might be a traffic infraction, such as speeding or changing lanes without signaling, is likely engaged in only ordinarily negligent conduct.
What Factors Must Be Proven for a PC 192(c) Conviction?
In order for the prosecutor to convict you of violating California Penal Code 192(c) vehicular manslaughter, they must be able to prove all the elements of the crime (CALCRIM 592 Jury Instructions):
- While you were driving a vehicle, you committed a misdemeanor crime or infraction or lawful act in an unlawful manner, and;
- Your act was dangerous to human life under the circumstances; and;
- You committed the act with ordinary or gross negligence, and;
- Your act caused the death of another person.
It should be noted that you could still be convicted of PC 192(c) vehicular manslaughter if the passenger in your car is killed due to your conduct.
What are the Penalties for PC 192(c) Vehicular Manslaughter?
The distinction between ordinary and gross negligence is critical in prosecutions under Penal Code Section 192(c) because it determines whether vehicular manslaughter will be charged as a misdemeanor or a felony.
Vehicular manslaughter is a “wobbler,” under California law, meaning it can be filed by the prosecuting agency as either a misdemeanor or a felony.
If the defendant acted with ordinary negligence, Penal Code 192(c) PC is always a misdemeanor punishably by:
- a maximum of one year in the county jail,
- a fine up to $1,000.
On the other hand, a grossly negligent defendant can be charged with either a misdemeanor or a felony in the discretion of the prosecutor.
If they elect to file a misdemeanor, the maximum punishment remains one year in the county jail.
In a felony PC 192(c) vehicular manslaughter filing, the punishment if convicted can include:
- two, four, or six years in the California state prison,
- a fine up to $10,000.
Also, the collateral consequences of a felony conviction including loss of gun rights.
Proving Defendant Caused the Death of Another Person
Whether ordinary or gross negligence is alleged, the prosecution must further prove that the defendant's driving caused the death of another person.
The California definition of causation in this context draws from common law concepts of proximate cause, which is distinguished from actual or factual cause, by incorporating concepts of reasonableness and attenuation.
In any car accident, it may be possible to say that but for the defendant driving their car, the accident would not have occurred and therefore the defendant caused the accident.
This misses the point, however, that even though the defendant may have actually caused the accident, other causes may contribute that are out of the defendant's control and should absolve the defendant of responsibility.
This is why under Penal Code Section 192(c) PC, only defendants who directly cause the death of another person, or whose conduct naturally and probably resulted in the death of another person, may be charged with vehicular manslaughter.
Related California Offenses for Penal Code 192(c)
Penal Code 187 PC – DUI Watson murder (second-degree)
Penal Code 187 PC - murder
Penal Code 191.5 PC – vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated
Penal Code 191.5(a) PC – gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated
How Can I Fight Vehicular Manslaughter Charges?
If you were charged with Penal Code 192(c) vehicular manslaughter, our Los Angeles criminal defense attorneys can use several strategies in an effort to get the charges reduced or dismissed, including:
- You didn't act in a negligent manner;
- Your negligence was not the cause of death;
- You were not the driver of the vehicle.
We might be able to make a reasonable argument that you were not acting with ordinary or gross negligence while driving your vehicle. Clearly, the specific details of the accident will need to be examined closely.
Perhaps we challenge prosecutor's evidence and show they can't prove your negligence was the actual cause of the victim's death. If necessary, we can use an accident reconstruction expert witness.
Experienced California Vehicular Manslaughter Defense Lawyer
The California crime of vehicular manslaughter under Penal Code Section 192(c) PC is a serious offense carrying a potential of 6 years in state prison on a first offense.
If you, or someone you know, is under investigation for, has been charged with, or has been arrested for a violation of PC 192(c), contact our experienced team of Los
Angeles criminal defense attorneys for an initial consultation.
Through prefiling intervention, we might be able to negotiate with the prosecutor to avoid the filing of formal charges before court.
Eisner Gorin LLP is a top-rated criminal defense law firm representing client's in Los Angeles County, Ventura County, Orange County, Riverside, San Bernardino, and the San Fernando Valley.
We are located at 1875 Century Park E #705, Los Angeles, CA 90067. Our main office is next to the Van Nuys Courthouse at 14401 Sylvan St #112 Van Nuys, CA 91401.
Contact our office for an initial consultation at (877) 781-1570.