Criminal Law

When Someone Gets Killed in a DUI Accident

By John McCurley, Attorney
How prosecutors charge DUI offenses involving deaths.

The consequences of a DUI conviction are typically serious. But generally, the most severe penalties are reserved for DUIs where someone is killed. (In some jurisdictions, DUI accidents and injuries are second in line in terms of severity.) And it usually doesn’t matter whether the death was that of a passenger, person in another car, or pedestrian: the impaired driver is responsible all the same.

Here’s an overview of how prosecutors charge DUI cases involving fatalities.

Charges You Could Be Facing

The laws of each state are different. But many states have several types of charges that—depending on the circumstances—could apply to a DUI involving a death. These might include:

  • “aggravated” DUI
  • vehicular homicide
  • negligent homicide
  • DUI manslaughter
  • vehicular manslaughter, and
  • murder.

Some statutes are specific to unlawful killings committed by drunk drivers. Other statutes—though they can be used for DUI cases—are more generally applicable to all types of homicides.

For instance, California prosecutors can charge DUI offenders with regular vehicular manslaughter—which isn’t specific to drunk drivers—or a more serious crime called “gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated.” Regular vehicular manslaughter carries a maximum six-year prison sentence, whereas a motorist convicted of vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated faces up to ten years in prison.

California prosecutors also have the option of charging a DUI offender with murder. However, there’s no special law for DUI murder: all types of murder, DUI related or not, are charged under the same statute.

What’s the Difference Between the Charges?

The defendant’s mental state is generally what differentiates the various charges that cover fatal DUI accidents. Most crimes have two components: a prohibited act and a mental state. The prosecution typically needs to prove both parts to get a conviction. For all DUI charges involving death, the prohibited act is generally the same—the defendant caused the death of another person while driving under the influence. But the mental state the prosecution has to prove varies depending on the charge.

Unlike most other crimes, DUI is usually a “strict liability” offense—meaning, the prosecution doesn’t have to prove a mental state. In other words, a prosecutor can get a conviction by proving only that the person was driving while under the influence.

In some states, including Florida and Idaho, DUI manslaughter is also a strict liability crime. In these states, the prosecution can prove DUI manslaughter by just showing that the motorist caused the death of another person while driving drunk. What was going on inside the defendant’s head doesn’t matter. However, in states like Maryland, prosecutors must additionally show that the defendant had a negligent mental state to get a DUI manslaughter conviction.

To establish a vehicular manslaughter charge, on the other hand, the prosecution typically needs to show more than mere carelessness or simple negligence. Normally, the prosecution has to prove that the defendant was reckless or grossly negligent.

And proving a DUI-related killing was murder requires even more of the prosecution. To get a conviction, a prosecutor generally must convince the judge or jury that the motorist acted with extreme recklessness or a “conscious disregard for human life.”

How Do Prosecutors Prove Mental State?

The distinctions between mental states aren’t always clear. For instance, the dividing line between grossly negligent and extreme recklessness can be subtle. And it’s often difficult to distinguish simple negligence from gross negligence. However, in determining a defendant’s mental state, a judge or jury might look to factors like:

Generally, the more egregious the conduct, the more likely it is that the defendant will be convicted of a serious charge like murder.

Example: Arthur was drinking heavily all afternoon at the local bar. His BAC was .25%—more than triple the legal limit. As he stumbled out with keys in hand, the bartender said, “Hey, buddy. Better take a cab. You’re in no condition to get behind the wheel.” Ignoring the warning, Arthur hopped in his car and started for home. At the first intersection, Arthur ran a red light and narrowly avoided slamming into another car. His luck ran out at the second intersection—failing to yield the right-away, Arthur plowed into a motorcycle. The motorcyclist died instantly. Based on these facts, a jury might not have any problem finding that Arthur acted with a conscious disregard for human life and is therefore guilty of murder.

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