Vehicular Manslaughter While Intoxicated PC 191.5(b)

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety reports that in 2021, there were almost 43,000 traffic-related deaths across the United States. While each one of these fatalities represents a tragedy, not every traffic death stems from negligence.

Those accused of vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated in California face serious penalties, even if their accident was a complete accident. To mitigate consequences associated with vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated under PC 191.5(b), it’s critical to partner with a qualified, experienced California DUI defense attorney.

This article will explain everything you need to know about vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated under PC 191.5(b), including possible legal defenses, potential penalties for conviction, and how a criminal defense lawyer can help you secure a favorable outcome.

If you’ve been charged with vehicular manslaughter, your future is on the line. With help from Gressley & Donaldson, you can mount an aggressive defense to clear your name and secure your freedom. Contact our law firm online to schedule a consultation.

Defining Vehicular Manslaughter While Intoxicated Under Penal Code § 191.5(b) PC

California Penal Code 191.5(b) describes the crime of vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated. This offense has several key elements, including the following:

  • The defendant killed a human being.
  • The killing was unlawful.
  • The killing was without malice.
  • The defendant was driving a vehicle.
  • The defendant also committed a driving under the influence (DUI) offense.
  • The defendant’s misdemeanor violation or their “ordinary negligence” led to the death.
  • The defendant acted without gross negligence.

California defines manslaughter as an unlawful killing without malice. Although the phrase “without malice” may refer to a range of situations, it represents driving errors in the context of vehicular manslaughter. In other words, vehicular manslaughter defendants did not intend to cause deaths, and their alleged actions led to accidental fatalities. If you intentionally run someone over with your car, you would probably face allegations of murder instead.

An Example of Vehicular Manslaughter While Intoxicated

Due to the complex elements of vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated under PC 191.5(b), a practical example may provide more clarity:

A motorist in California drives home after having five beers at a bar. Their BAC level is 0.1 percent when they enter the vehicle. On the way home, they spot a yellow light ahead and decide to speed toward the intersection. By the time they enter the intersection, the light is already red and a pedestrian has started crossing. The driver subsequently strikes and kills the pedestrian. This offense satisfies all of the elements of vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated:

  • The accident resulted in a fatality.
  • The accident was unintentional.
  • The motorist committed a traffic infraction (speeding too late through a red light).
  • The motorist violated California’s DUI laws (having a BAC of over 0.08 percent).
  • The traffic infraction led directly to the pedestrian’s death.

Note that in this example, the motorist did not commit an act of “gross negligence.” Although they made a clear mistake when they attempted to beat the yellow light, they did not act in an outrageously reckless manner.

Defining Gross Vehicular Manslaughter in California

If an intoxicated motorist commits gross negligence that leads to a traffic fatality, they will instead face gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated charges under PC 191.5(b). As the name suggests, this is a more serious offense compared to PC 191.5(a). The elements of both offenses are the same—except when it comes to the type of negligence involved. While PC 191.5(a) involves gross negligence, PC 191.5(b) involves only ordinary negligence.

Ordinary Negligence vs. Gross Negligence

Ordinary negligence is the failure to act with the same level of care as a “reasonable” driver. All drivers in California owe the people around them a certain “duty of care.” They are expected to respect traffic laws, maintain safe speeds, and keep their eyes on the road.

While failing to carry out these acts might be considered unlawful, they may not be “crimes” in an official legal sense. Basic carelessness, mistakes, or loss of control could also fall under the general category of ordinary negligence. Examples include:

  • Texting and driving
  • Speeding
  • Failing to shoulder check
  • Making an illegal turn
  • Failing to yield

Gross negligence goes beyond honest errors that characterize ordinary negligence. Acts of gross negligence are acts that put everyone else in danger in a way that no reasonable person or driver would consider doing. The most important element of gross negligence is the clear, obvious, and heightened risk of death or serious injury. Examples include:

  • Doing donuts in the middle of a crowded intersection
  • Drifting around a corner
  • Operating a vehicle that is not “street legal”
  • Driving on the sidewalk
  • “Ghost riding the whip”

The type of negligence displayed affects not only the penalties that a driver faces, but also what charges they incur.

Proving DUI Manslaughter Under California Law

Intoxication at the time of a fatal accident is not enough to satisfy the requirements of DUI manslaughter. To secure a conviction, prosecutors must establish that you also committed some kind of unlawful act that increased the risk of death, such as a misdemeanor or traffic infraction. They also have the option of establishing that you displayed some form of “ordinary negligence.” Finally, prosecutors must show that this unlawful act or ordinary negligence led directly to the fatality.

Note that the traffic fatality might not be caused by the initial collision. For example, a drunk driver might crash into another vehicle after recklessly weaving through traffic. Although the second driver might be unharmed after the initial crash, they may exit their vehicle before being struck by a third passing car. In this situation, prosecutors could theoretically argue that this death would not have occurred if not for the drunk driver’s actions.

One of the most important tasks for prosecutors in this situation is to establish that you were committing a DUI at the time of the offense. The same basic requirements and challenges apply, and they will need to establish both the reliability of alcohol tests and the impairment of the driver. Note that if you were under the age of 21 at the time of your offense, you can be charged with a DUI even if you had a BAC of 0.01 percent. Drivers under the age of 21 must also consent to preliminary Breathalyzer tests – which is not the case with adults.

Penalties for DUI Vehicular Manslaughter in California

DUI vehicular manslaughter under Penal Code 191.5(b) is a “wobbler” offense. In other words, it may result in a felony or misdemeanor conviction. If convicted of a felony under this section, you face 16 months, two years, or four years in prison. You may also face a fine of up to $10,000. If convicted of a misdemeanor under this section, you face up to one year in jail and a fine of up to $1,000.

Legal Defenses to Penal Code 191.5 Charges

If you are facing charges under PC 191.5, don’t give up hope. There are numerous effective defense strategies available to you. Depending on the specifics of your case, your attorney may be able to help you employ one of the defense strategies discussed below.

You Were Not Under the Influence of Drugs or Alcohol

If you establish that you were not under the influence of alcohol, you cannot face charges under PC 191.5(b). Intoxication is a key element of this offense, and prosecutors cannot secure a conviction without it.

Standard DUI defense strategies apply in this situation. These might include questioning the accuracy of an alcohol test. For example, the arresting officer might not have properly calibrated a testing device, or law enforcement officers may have failed to follow the correct testing protocol.

Another defense strategy might involve showing that although you consumed alcohol, your ability to drive was not affected in any notable way.

Fourth Amendment strategies may also prove effective. With this approach, defendants attempt to show that their traffic stop was unlawful. Any degree of police misconduct during your interaction could make any subsequent evidence (such as a breathalyzer test result) inadmissible in court. This could be something as simple as failing to explain your rights.

That being said, the nature of vehicular manslaughter could make this strategy less effective than with a typical DUI. With the death of another human being, police have the right to question you. You are also legally required to pull over and wait for police to arrive after such an incident, and you could face serious penalties for leaving the scene. In other words, police officers do not need to “pull you over” in this situation, which could make Fourth Amendment defenses less applicable.

Furthermore, proving that you were not intoxicated will not prevent charges of “standard” vehicular homicide. The lack of intoxication may reduce potential penalties, but you may still face serious consequences for causing the death of another human being.

You Did Not Act with Negligence

Another potential strategy may involve establishing your lack of negligence. Although police may accuse you of committing some kind of traffic infraction before the fatality, they may not be correct. You might have been obeying the rules of the road, and your accident may have been truly unavoidable.

For example, a pedestrian might have run into the road with absolutely no warning, giving you no time to react before the collision. By successfully arguing that even a sober person could not have dodged the impact, you may avoid penalties for vehicular manslaughter. You might also refer to surveillance evidence that shows you approaching the intersection at a safe speed, contrary to reports that you were speeding before the collision.

In addition, you might point out that the pedestrian was jaywalking. Note that you may still face DUI-related penalties even if you successfully argue that you did not act with negligence.

Your Actions Did Not Kill the Victim

Penalties only apply under this section if you cause the death of another human being. Police may have incorrectly charged you with vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated even though no one lost their life as a result of your crash.

Perhaps they saw the extent of an individual’s injuries and assumed that they were dead. However, people often make miraculous recoveries after receiving medical treatment. If you can establish that the individual in question is still alive, you cannot face charges under this section. Note that you may still face other charges related to your accident.

Can You Get a Vehicular Manslaughter Conviction Expunged?

It is possible to have your vehicular manslaughter conviction expunged – but only if you were convicted of a misdemeanor under PC 191.5(b). It is only possible to expunge misdemeanors in California, and felonies are not eligible for this type of relief. That being said, you can file a motion to reduce a wobbler felony offense to a misdemeanor in some situations.

After reducing your felony to a misdemeanor, you can then expunge it. With this two-stage process, it is possible to eventually remove a felony conviction under PC 191.5(b) from your criminal record. This is a complex process, however, and you may wish to discuss it further with your criminal defense attorney in California.

Are There Related Crimes to Vehicular Manslaughter?

In California, various crimes are related to vehicular manslaughter. You may be charged with one of the following related crimes:

  • Gross Vehicular Manslaughter While Intoxicated Under PC 191.5(a). Gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated is a more serious offense compared to vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated (Penal Code 191.5(b)), and it may result in up to 10 years in prison.
  • Vehicular Manslaughter Under PC 192(c). If you were not intoxicated at the time of the alleged accident, you still face penalties for a “normal” case of vehicular manslaughter under PC 192(c). This includes up to six years in prison.
  • DUI Murder/Watson Murder. It is possible to face a murder charge after causing someone’s death in a DUI incident. These “Watson Murder” cases involve particularly serious recklessness and complete disregard for human life. Those convicted will face penalties for second-degree murder, and it is possible to face life imprisonment for this offense.

These crimes are serious offenses, and any conviction can result in life-altering consequences. The best way to mitigate the negative effects is to work closely with an experienced legal professional.

Gressley & Donaldson: Leading DUI Defense Attorneys in California

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If you are serious about fighting charges related to vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated under PC 191.5(b), it is important to formulate an effective defense strategy. Time is of the essence, which is why you should schedule a consultation with a criminal defense attorney at your earliest convenience.

During this initial consultation, you can discuss the specifics of your situation with knowledgeable attorneys who are experienced in handling DUI-related offenses. When you’re ready to put your best foot forward as you approach vehicular manslaughter charges, contact the compassionate attorneys at Gressley & Donaldson for guidance.

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We understand that being accused of a crime is one of the most challenging times of your life. Rely on us to advocate for your rights and to give you the defense you deserve.