If you asked most Californians what driving violations can lead to criminal charges, what replies would you expect? The answers probably reflect scenarios common in police shows:
It is true that everything on this list can constitute a crime under California law. It is also true that most people don’t think they will be charged with a crime following an accident. Is their belief accurate?
When is a car accident a crime?
In my 35 years representing accident victims, I have seen tragic, unpreventable accidents. I have also seen careless behavior that causes wrongful death or catastrophic injuries. What separates true “accidents” from criminal behavior?
Generally, when a person behaves legally, acts reasonably, and has no criminal intent to harm anyone, no crime occurs. In those cases, the authorities don’t bring car accident criminal charges. Instead, the case against the at-fault driver is a civil one. The injured victims sue for monetary compensation for their damages.
A driver’s behavior in some car accidents, however, rises to the level of a crime. When a driver breaks the law, drives recklessly, or disregards others’ safety, criminal charges can be filed. The chances of criminal charges are higher when the driver kills or permanently injures someone. In those tragedies, California’s vehicular manslaughter statute may apply.
What is vehicular manslaughter?
Vehicular manslaughter is the crime of killing someone while driving a car irresponsibly and dangerously.
The California Penal Code divides vehicular manslaughter into three categories:
- When a driver drives with gross negligence while either committing a misdemeanor offense or while driving in a way that might kill someone (Penal Code 192(c)(1).
- When a driver drives with ordinary negligence while committing a misdemeanor offense or while driving in a way that might kill someone (Penal Code 192(c)(2).
- If a driver intentionally causes an accident for financial gain. (Penal Code 192(c)(3).
Despite how ominous these descriptions sound, vehicular manslaughter can be either a misdemeanor or a felony offense. If a driver acts with ordinary negligence, the charge is a misdemeanor. If a driver acts with gross negligence, the charge can be a misdemeanor or felony, depending on the circumstances surrounding the car accident.
What kinds of driving might lead to criminal charges?
All drivers make mistakes while driving. Sometimes we don’t see the car in our blind spot. We forget to look both ways before turning or proceeding into an intersection. Or we take our eyes off the road to change the radio station. We swerve too sharply when avoiding an obstacle in the road. All these actions are a form of negligence, but they are ordinary negligence—nothing likely to result in criminal charges.
Drivers may cross the line into gross negligence when they willfully disobey laws. “Gross negligence” is a term from the vehicular manslaughter statute. If no one dies in an accident, a driver might be charged with reckless driving. The standard for reckless driving is driving a vehicle “in willful or wanton disregard for the safety of persons or property” (California Vehicle Code Sections 23103 and 23104).
What is “gross negligence”?
At some point, most drivers have observed another driver’s behavior and thought to themselves, “That guy’s going to cause an accident.” Sometimes it’s a driver speeding down a two-lane road, passing multiple cars at a time, even across double yellow lines and around curves. Sometimes it’s a driver swerving into lanes on both sides of her lane because she is focused on texting. If these drivers kill someone in an accident, a court can find them guilty of gross negligence because their actions are too far outside the bounds of responsible driving.
Examples of gross negligence include:
- Driving excessively fast for conditions
- Texting while driving
- Unnecessarily swerving in and out of traffic
- Illegally passing
- Intentionally running red lights or stop signs
What is “reckless driving”?
Driving recklessly does not mean making a judgment error or going ten miles over the speed limit while on a highway. “Willful and wanton disregard for safety” means driving in a way that a responsible person would consider dangerous. It’s driving in a way that makes an accident likely to happen.
Behaviors that are considered “gross negligence” under the vehicular manslaughter statute fall under the “reckless driving” category as well. How the action is labeled (“gross negligence” or “willful and wanton disregard for safety”) depends on whether a person dies because of the accident.
The level of negligence assigned to a driver’s actions depends on the circumstances surrounding the accident. There is no hard and fast definition of “careless driving” or “reckless driving.” Instead, the decision is contextual:
- Where did the accident occur?
- Who was around?
- Was it in a construction or school zone?
- What was the weather like?
- What led to the driver’s actions?
The totality of the circumstances around a car accident is critical to determining who was at fault. Police, attorneys, courts and insurance companies all want to know who caused the accident. Because California uses a comparative negligence system to determine compensation after an accident, determining who contributed to the accident is equally important.
An example of how context matters is a speeding car. Although it may be illegal and negligent, a car driving 12 miles over the speed limit on a highway may not pose a significant hazard to others on the road. On a clear day with few cars on a divided highway, 12 miles over is unlikely to kill someone. In contrast, if a driver’s vision is obscured by smoke or fog, or a rockslide has recently occurred, even going the posted speed limit may be reckless for the conditions.
What other criminal offenses can drivers be charged with after an accident?
Accidents are an accepted fact of driving on streets with millions of other people. Drivers should not exist in fear of criminal prosecution for ordinary mistakes. However, when drivers break the law, they should expect to be charged.
Some of the more serious offenses that carry stiff penalties include
- Driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs
- Leaving the scene of an accident, no matter how minor
- Not pulling over when law enforcement signals you to do so
How can a Long Beach Car Accident Lawyer help?
Anyone involved in a car accident should consult an experienced Long Beach Car Accident Lawyer immediately after the wreck. An attorney can evaluate the situation, determine the likelihood of car accident criminal charges, and can recommend a criminal defense attorney if needed.
Based on my 35 years of advocating for car accident victims, I can say that a driver who causes a car accident is much more likely to face a wrongful death civil suit than a criminal prosecution. However, the possibility of car accident criminal charges exists, especially when a driver kills or badly injures a person.
Your Injuries Are Personal to Me
My law practice is devoted exclusively to helping accident victims obtain compensation from those who hurt them. I take your injuries personally, so I handle every aspect of your case to ensure you receive maximum compensation.
Call me today to discuss your situation. You are under no obligation and you will never pay any money unless you recover damages for your injuries. I offer bilingual services and am available 24/7 to talk to you about your case.
Call the Law Office of Michael D. Waks at 888-394-1174 today. Or use the convenient online contact form to schedule a free consultation.
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