Sometimes called “vehicular manslaughter,” vehicular homicide is the unlawful killing of another person with a vehicle without the intent to kill. Vehicular homicide is a serious crime; in fact, it is a felony. Vehicular homicide is an interesting crime because it is one of only a handful of felonies that can be charged even though you never had the slightest intent of killing or injuring anyone. Instead, the legal theory behind vehicular homicide is something called “transferred intent.” This means that your intent didn’t have to be to kill or injure anyone, but if you intended to drive recklessly such that death or injury was a foreseeable result of your actions, then in the eyes of the law you had a criminal intent to harm. If you or a loved one has been charged with vehicular homicide or vehicular manslaughter, contact a Philadelphia Criminal Defense Attorney at The Zeiger Firm today to set-up a free consultation before it’s too late.
Overview of Vehicular Homicide Charges
Although commonly associated with drunk driving, or driving under the influence of drugs or narcotics, vehicular homicide charges can be filed whenever the death involves an illegal or negligent driving accident such as drag racing, etc. In Pennsylvania, homicide by vehicle is a felony and is chargeable if a person “recklessly or with gross negligence causes the death of another person” while driving his or her vehicle in violation of the law. If you are charged with driving a vehicle “recklessly,” it means that your behavior was so careless it is considered extreme when measured against normal standards of care. “Gross negligence” is similar, and it is mealy a small step down from recklessness. It means that you acted with “reckless disregard” for the safety or lives of others such that it’s a violation of a person’s right to safety.
For example, if the speed limit is 65 miles per hour and you are driving 80 miles per hour, the weather is clear, and you remain in your lane, this would likely not rise to the level of recklessness or gross negligence; although, it would be considered negligence per se because you broke a law designed to protect others. This means you would be subject to a civil case for wrongful death, which is when the family of the person killed can sue you for monetary damages, but it does not result in you having a criminal record or any prison time. On the other hand, if the speed limit is 65 and you are driving 80 miles per hour in the ice and snow while weaving between lanes on the highway, this would likely rise to the level of recklessness or gross negligence because this behavior was so careless it is highly likely that it would result in serious injuries or death to others on the road.
As you can see from the above example, whether the Commonwealth is able to prove the charge of vehicular homicide is highly dependent on the facts and circumstances of every case, even down to the weather, the type of car you drive, and your experience as a driver. There is a multitude of factors that can be taken into consideration to prove that you may have been negligent, but that you were not driving recklessly. The attorneys at the Zeiger Firm can analyze the specific fact of your case and use those, along with expert testimony, to prove to the court that you were not reckless or grossly negligent such that the state cannot prove a charge of homicide by vehicle. Attorney Brian Zeiger may even be able to gather enough evidence early in the case to get the charges dismissed or negotiate a plea deal in which the more serious charge of vehicular homicide is dropped in exchange for you pleading to a lesser charge, such as reckless driving. Such matters are not black and white, and although these cases are difficult because an innocent life was lost, we all drive, and it could happen to any one of us.
Accidents, Negligence, and Wrongful Death
More often than not, auto accident deaths are the result of something called simple negligence, not reckless disregard. An example of simple negligence would be if you were texting and rear-ended a vehicle, pushing the vehicle into an intersection in which the driver was then killed. Although texting while driving is in violation of the law and it was dangerous for you to do so, it is understood that this behavior does not rise to the level of manslaughter, and it is not likely that you would be charged with vehicular homicide. Simple negligence, sometimes called ordinary negligence, means that you fell below the accepted standard of care and this resulted in death. If you are trying to determine where your driving behavior fell, be aware that simple negligence consists of the following elements:
- Duty: The driver had a duty to drive safely on a public road;
- Breach: the driver failed to drive as an ordinarily safe driver would in the same circumstances;
- Causation: The victim was injured or killed as a direct result of the breach of his duty; and
Damages: As a result of the breach, the victim sustained compensable damage such as medical bills.
If you were driving recklessly, you were necessarily also driving negligently, but not the other way around.
There is also another type of negligence called negligence per se, which is when the court will automatically find that a driver was negligent if she broke the law and that caused an accident. In a vehicular homicide case, you must have broken the law but done so in a particularly violent way, such as drag racing or trying to drive over a sidewalk. In most cases, however, negligence and negligence per se are not criminal, typically resulting only in a traffic ticket because it is understood that the majority of drivers are negligent at some point. Whether it’s answering an important phone call, traveling a few miles per hour over the speed limit, or even driving the speed limit but in poor weather conditions, if your ordinary negligence causes death this is still tragic, but not criminal. Instead, the family’s remedy is to sue you for wrongful death in a civil case.
Further, as set forth in the example above, what if you are driving the speed limit and following all traffic laws when a vehicle is pushed out in front of you and you cause the death as a result of another driver’s negligence? This is tragic for all involved, but again, it is neither criminal nor negligent because you did nothing to fall below the standard of care. In this case, a grieving family and a prosecuting attorney looking for someone to blame may try and find blame with you when there is none. It is important to immediately contact criminal defense attorney Brian Zeiger so he can begin protecting your rights by gathering and preserving evidence early in the investigation. He will advocate zealously to get the facts and present them to the state so that the charges are either dismissed or never filed. Even if you have not yet been charged with vehicular homicide but you have been sued for wrongful death or know that you were involved in an accident that caused the death of another party, attorney Brian Zeiger can work to help prevent charges from ever being filed. It’s well worth it to take advantage of his free consultation.
Vehicular Homicide and Driving Under the Influence
The crime of homicide by a vehicle while driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol, which still a type of vehicular homicide, is a different criminal offense in Pennsylvania than vehicular homicide as the result of recklessness. If you are charged under Title 75, Section 3735 of the Pennsylvania criminal code, you’ve been charged as intentionally causing a death with your vehicle because you were driving under the influence of alcohol or a controlled substance. This is a more serious charge than a charge under Section 3732 because it is considered especially reckless to get in and drive a vehicle when you know or should know you are under the influence. Essentially, the court sees you as having the choice not to drive before getting in the car. If you’ve been charged under this Section, however, the state must prove that the death actually resulted from the intoxication. For example, if the alcohol slowed your reaction time such that you ran a red light and killed someone in an intersection, the death was likely related to the intoxication. On the other hand, if you were driving with a blood-alcohol level over the legal limit but hit and killed someone on a bicycle because you were texting, attorney Zeiger can argue that the death did not directly result from the DUI violation but rather a texting violation, which means you should be charged with the lesser and not greater offense.
Possible Consequences of a Vehicular Homicide Conviction
An individual charged with vehicular homicide may face many years in jail and other serious consequences, including large fines. If you are charged with homicide by vehicle under Title 75, Section 3732, i.e., you were not driving under the influence of drug or alcohol and are not subject to any of the aggravating factors as set forth below, then you may be sentenced to up to 7 years in prison. If, however, you are subject to any of the following aggravating factors, then you may be subject to an additional five years in prison for a total of 12 years:
- The death occurred in an active work zone;
- You were texting;
- You failed to yield to an approaching emergency vehicle; or
- You were in an emergency response area.
If you were charged with causing a death with your vehicle because you were under the influence of drugs or alcohol and this contributed to the death, then this is a felony of the second degree and is punishable by up to ten years in prison. However, if you are convicted under this statute there is actually a sentencing minimum of three years. This means you must serve at least three years in prison, and it is required that you serve an additional consecutive three years in prison for every person that died as a result of the accident. For example, if the judge determines that you should serve a base of five years in prison, but you killed three people in the accident, then you must serve a consecutive six years in prison. This is a serious charge, and as a result, when you, a friend or loved one is arrested or charged with vehicular homicide, you should immediately consult an attorney with the expertise needed to handle these cases. Attorney Brian Zeiger is that attorney. He may be able to get your charges dismissed, reduced, or argue that the deaths were not caused as a direct result of the underlying criminal offense, i.e., the DUI.
Defending Against Vehicular Homicide Charges
With the help of the attorneys at the Zeiger firm, the state may choose to drop or reduce your charges before trial based on your attorney’s investigation of the facts. For example, your attorney may be able to prove that your behavior was not reckless but only negligent and that multiple alternative factors contributed to the victim’s death. With aggressive investigation and lawyering, the Pennsylvania criminal defense attorneys at The Zeiger Firm have convinced authorities to drop and dismiss cases at their inception, before reputations are ruined. As a result, your lawyer must develop your strongest possible defenses as early as possible. For example, if the accident involves a claim that the driver was drunk, your attorney must analyze field sobriety tests, BAC tests and other evidence to protect your rights. Often, your attorney may need to consult with experts to sift through the evidence.
In cases where the charges are not dropped early in the proceedings, your attorney at the Zeiger firm can still present a plethora of defenses to defeat the charges, which the state must prove beyond a reasonable doubt. The first way of doing this is to simply place doubts in the mind of the jurors as to one of the necessary elements of the crime. In the case of vehicular homicide, your attorney may try and use the evidence to prove that you were not driving recklessly or that your driving was not the “proximate cause” of the victim’s death. An example of this would be if the death was caused by an intervening independent circumstance based on events that were set in motion by the accident.
A common example of this is when medical malpractice is involved. For example, let’s say you were driving recklessly considering the weather conditions and you are involved in an accident in which the other driver sustained a head injury. He may seem fine at the time and present to the emergency room. If the doctor in the emergency room does not perform the proper brain scans such that the victim dies as the result of the misdiagnosis, then the government may not be able to charge you with vehicular homicide because you were not the direct cause of the victim’s death. For this reason, the attorneys at the Zeiger firm will aggressively but respectfully investigate the direct medical cause of death, especially when the death was not immediate, to determine whether there was an independent intervening circumstance such that the car accident cannot have been considered the proximate cause of the victim’s death.
Another way of defeating the necessary elements of the crime would be to make a motion to suppress the government’s evidence because it was obtained illegally. For example, what if the police officer at the scene of the accident told you that it was illegal to refuse a field sobriety test? This is actually not true, and you have the right to refuse a field sobriety test. If you do so, the officer cannot arrest you on this ground alone. Further, if you are taken to the hospital and your blood is taken by a nurse without gloves, there is a delay in processing, and the hospital refuses to certify the record, this evidence may not be admissible in a court of law and can be thrown out. In this case, the government would not be able to prove that your blood alcohol level was over the legal limit, and in turn, would not be able to prove the charge of vehicular homicide as the result of a DUI against you. The law is designed to protect you to ensure the integrity of the government and the evidence during the criminal process, and you should not be afraid to take advantage of those protections.
Justification and Excuse as a Defense
If, after looking at all of the evidence, you and your attorney decide that it is not in your best interest to try and defeat the claims on the elements, there are two other major categories of defenses that your attorney at the Zeiger firm can use to defeat the charges: “justification” and “excuse.”
If the judge or jury decides that your actions were “justified,” it means exactly that, you did the right thing in the eyes of society and it is to be encouraged. If a crime is justified, even if the underlying behavior could be criminal, it is not considered criminal at all due to the circumstances. Common examples of “justification” include, but are not limited to, the following:
- Defense of a third-person;
- Prevent a serious crime; and
Although less common in vehicular homicide cases, there are cases in which the driver’s actions were justified. For example, if you are driving down the road and you see another driver pass out at the wheel and start moving towards a group of people on the sidewalk, if you drive your vehicle in front of the other drivers and the other driver dies as a result, although you technically drove recklessly and caused a death, your actions were necessary to prevent the potential death of innocent pedestrians. In this case, you did not commit a crime even though the elements match. Another example would be a road rage incident when the other driver is trying to harm you and you take action to protect yourself that resulted in the death of the other driver. Again, even if the elements match, i.e., you performed a reckless maneuver with your vehicle and caused the death of another, your actions were justified because you were being threatened and needed to protect yourself.
An “excuse” defense differs from a justification defense in that your actions are considered criminal and are not encouraged, but you had an excuse for your behavior such that you should not be convicted. This defense takes into consideration that humans are not perfect. The following are the most common examples of “excuse” defenses:
- Duress – this is when you commit a criminal act because you are told if you do not do it, you will immediately be killed. Duress is typically not available in homicide cases, however, as your life is not considered to be worth more than another’s;
- Involuntary intoxication – This is common if you are given the wrong type of medication or are given something like a date rape drug without knowing that you have been drugged. It is not an excuse that you didn’t know how many drinks you had that night, only that you did not know there was a drug in your system. This is an especially important excuse to consider in a DUI vehicular homicide cases;
- Insanity – If you meet the legal definition of insanity such that you didn’t know what you were doing was wrong or were hallucinating such that you didn’t know what you were doing at all, i.e., thinking you were driving in an open field when you were on a busy highway, you may not be convicted because you were suffering from insanity;
- Entrapment – this means that you were induced to commit the crime by law enforcement, i.e., the scene was set so that you found yourself in a situation in which the crime was committed that you would not have set up on your own. This is typically not an excuse that comes up in vehicular homicide cases; and
- Infancy – if you remember the case of the young boy who took his father’s car to try and go to get dinner, this excuse would apply. Children under the age of 7 are typically not considered to have enough intent to be convicted of this type of crime.
The attorneys at the Zeiger Firm will take into consideration every fact of your case in analyzing each possible elemental defense, justification, and excuse available at law to defend against your vehicular homicide charges. If you believe you may qualify for a clear defense, call the attorneys at the Zeiger Firm immediately so that this is made clear early in the prosecution and it can be argued that the charges should be dropped.
Contact a Philadelphia Vehicular Homicide Defense Attorney Immediately
The Philadelphia, Pennsylvania criminal defense lawyers at The Zeiger Firm understand the laws, rules, defenses, charges, and procedures necessary to defend clients charged with vehicular homicide, and we fight to obtain the best results for our clients. When cases do go forward, our criminal defense attorneys understand the stress involved and advocate zealously to protect your rights, never forgetting that our most important goal is obtaining the best results for our clients. This may mean fighting procedural battles or representing our clients before a judge or jury and presented a solid defense. We work hard for our clients, explaining their options and keeping them updated about the status of their cases while ensuring they have the best expert witnesses on their side and no stone remains unturned. We all drive, and serious car accidents that result in death happen every day.
When you need a Philadelphia, Pennsylvania criminal defense attorney to defend you when you have been arrested and charged with vehicular homicide, contact The Zeiger Firm, whose goal is to represent every client zealously in order to obtain the best results possible in each case. To arrange a consultation, please give us a call at 215-546-0340 or send us an email.