VEHICULAR HOMICIDE

In Arizona, you can be charged with vehicular homicide when you cause a car accident that results in someone’s death. Too often, those charged with vehicular homicide did not intend to hurt anyone, let alone kill someone. However, in Arizona, the law does not treat individuals who commit vehicular homicide differently than individuals who commit what most people conventionally think of as murder.

The most frequently charged vehicular homicide offense in Arizona is vehicular manslaughter. But you can be charged with any of the Arizona homicide classifications:

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Vehicular Homicide

Vehicular Manslaughter

While vehicular manslaughter is not the most severe form of vehicular homicide it is the most common type of vehicular homicide charge that you will see in Arizona.

Manslaughter Defined

In Arizona, a Vehicular Manslaughter conviction requires the prosecution to prove that you recklessly caused the death of another person. A.R.S. § 13-1103(A)(1). This means that the State must prove that:

  • You caused the death of another person; and
  • You were aware of and showed a conscious disregard of a substantial and unjustifiable risk of death.

Recklessness

The risk must be of such nature and degree that disregarding it was a gross deviation from what a reasonable person would have done in the situation. There is no one specific act of recklessness that results in a Vehicular Manslaughter charge. Examples of reckless behavior that can lead to a Vehicular Manslaughter charge include:

Vehicular Manslaughter Sentencing

In Arizona, vehicular manslaughter sentencing falls under the same guidelines that mandate all vehicular homicide sentencing. Vehicular manslaughter is charged as a Class 2 Dangerous Felony offense. If convicted, you face between:

  • 7 years a maximum sentence of 21 years in prison.

SIDE NOTE: If convicted, probation is not available, even on a first offense.

vehicular homicide sentencing

Second Degree Vehicular Homicide

Second Degree Vehicular Homicide is a more serious charge than Vehicular Manslaughter.  After Vehicular Manslaughter, it is the second most common type of Vehicular Homicide offense charged in Arizona.

Second Degree Vehicular Homicide Defined

Under Arizona law, A.R.S. § 13-1104(A)(3), a second degree vehicular homicide conviction requires the prosecution to prove that:

  • You caused the death of another person; and
  • You recklessly engaged in conduct that created a grave risk of death; and
  • You did so under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to human life.

Second Degree Vehicular Homicide vs Vehicular Manslaughter

Second degree vehicular homicide requires an additional component that you were acting under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to human life. This is what makes it more serious than Vehicular Manslaughter.

Extreme Indifference to Human Life Explained

There is no one specific type of conduct that qualifies as manifesting extreme indifference to human life. Typically, the prosecution will consider you committing a combination of any two or more acts of reckless behavior as amounting to circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to human life. For example:

  • DUI plus criminal speeding or aggressive driving; or
  • DUI plus running multiple red lights or stop signs; or
  • Drag racing plus weaving through a busy street or highway.
  • Even driving under the influence of alcohol when you have an extremely high blood alcohol concentration may by itself be considered manifesting extreme indifference to human life.

Sentence for Vehicular Homicide – Second Degree Vehicular Homicide

In Arizona, second degree vehicular homicide is a Class 1 Dangerous Felony offense. If convicted, you face between:

  • 10 years and a maximum sentence of 25 years in prison.

SIDE NOTE: If convicted, probation is not available, even on a first offense.

Vehicular Manslaughter

Vehicular Negligent Homicide

Vehicular negligent homicide is the least severe type of vehicular homicide charge you can face in Arizona. While the least severe, it is by no means an insignificant .

Vehicular Negligent Homicide Defined

In Arizona, to be convicted of vehicular negligent homicide, the prosecution is required to prove that you caused the death of another person with criminal negligence pursuant to A.R.S. § 13-1102. This means that the prosecution must prove that:

  • You caused the death of another person; and
  • You failed to recognize a substantial and unjustifiable risk of causing the death of another person.

Criminal Negligence Defined

The risk must be such that the failure to perceive it is a gross deviation from what a reasonable person would observe in the situation.

Example. A parent is driving with a young child on their lap rather than in a car seat when they cause a car accident. This may result in a charge of vehicular negligent homicide.

Vehicular Negligent Homicide vs Vehicular Manslaughter

The difference is whether you were aware of the risk or failed to recognize the risk. For vehicular manslaughter, you must have been aware of a substantial risk and consciously disregarded the risk that your conduct would cause death. Negligent homicide only requires that you failed to recognize the risk.

  • Example. If while excessively speeding, you cause an accident that results in the death of another person, then you would may face a charge of Negligent Homicide – Vehicular or Vehicular Manslaughter, depending on your speed.
  • Negligent Homicide as a Reduced Charge. In general, however, you will not see the State charge people with vehicular negligent homicide. What typically occurs is that the State charges you with vehicular manslaughter. Then, only if your attorney is able to successfully negotiate a plea bargain that drops the charge down, you may be able to plead guilty to vehicular negligent homicide instead of the more serious charge. If a Vehicular Manslaughter case goes to trial, then a jury could also find you guilty of the lesser-included offense of Negligent Homicide – Vehicular if the jury has reasonable doubt as to whether you committed vehicular manslaughter.

Sentence for Vehicular Homicide – Negligent Homicide

In Arizona, vehicular negligent homicide is a Class 4 Dangerous Felony offense. If convicted, the sentence for vehicular homicide under a negligence theory is anywhere between:

  • 4 years and a maximum sentence of 8 years in prison.

SIDE NOTE: If convicted, probation is not available, even on a first offense.

DUI causing death

First Degree Vehicular Felony Murder

The most serious type of Vehicular Homicide you can be charged with in Arizona is first degree vehicular felony murder.

First Degree Vehicular Felony Murder Defined

While you can certainly commit first degree vehicular homicide by premeditating and using your car to murder someone, the most common way you can be charged with first degree vehicular homicide is with vehicular felony murder. A.R.S. § 13-1105. First degree vehicular felony murder requires the prosecution to prove that:

Sentence for Vehicular Homicide – Felony Murder

In Arizona, first degree vehicular felony murder is a Class 1 Dangerous Felony. If convicted, the sentence for vehicular homicide pursuant to a theory of felony murder is anywhere from:

  • Life in prison to natural life imprisonment.

Life. A person who is sentenced to natural life imprisonment may be released after 25 years (if the victim was 15 years old or older) and after 35 years (if the victim was under the age of 15 or was an unborn child).

Natural Life. A person who is sentenced to natural life imprisonment is not eligible for parole or release from prison on any basis.

MVD Consequences to Vehicular Homicide

If you are convicted of vehicular homicide, then MVD will revoke your driver license for 3 years. A.R.S. §§ 28-3304, 28-3315. Your driving privileges will not be automatically reinstated after the 3 years have passed. You must complete a Revocation Application (also called an Investigation Packet) with MVD and pay a reinstatement fee.

SIDE NOTE: Before applying for reinstatement, you must have satisfied any other court or MVD requirements, such as paying all fines and criminal restitution or completing traffic survival school.

Use of a Dangerous Instrument (Car)

Arizona charges vehicular homicide as a Dangerous Offense. An offense is a Dangerous Offense if it involved the use of a Dangerous Instrument. A.R.S. § 13-105(13). A Dangerous Instrument means anything that is readily capable of causing death or serious physical injury under the circumstances in which it is used. A.R.S. § 13-105(12).

When the prosecution charges you with Vehicular Homicide it will also allege that your car was a Dangerous Instrument. If the prosecution proves that your car was a Dangerous Instrument, then you face mandatory prison as a sentence. This means that even if you have no prior criminal record, you will not be eligible for probation and must be sentenced to prison.

Second Degree Vehicular Homicide

Defenses to Vehicular Homicide

Causation. The main defense to a Vehicular Homicide charge is causation—that your actions did not cause the death of the other person.

  • Examples of intervening events to show that your actions did not cause the death include:
  • Mechanical defect to your car; or
  • The alleged victim’s car was traveling at ambush velocity (meaning that the other car was traveling at such a high speed that you could not have reasonably avoided an accident); or
  • Another driver’s traffic violation or failure to yield; or
  • Road defects; or
  • Improper traffic signage.

Superseding Intervening Cause. If the intervening event was unforeseeable and out of the ordinary, then it is called a superseding intervening event.

  • No matter what it is always the prosecution’s burden to prove that your actions caused the death. If there is a superseding intervening event, then you get an extra jury instruction that the prosecution also has to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a superseding intervening event did not cause the death.
  • Example. If you were DUI and while you are driving, your passenger side airbag goes off because of a mechanical defect. This startles you and you swerve and hit another car. The driver of the other car dies from the accident. Your defense is that your driving under the influence did not cause the accident. The mechanical defect was a superseding intervening event that caused the accident. The prosecution has to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you caused the accident. And the prosecution has to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the mechanical defect did not cause the accident.
  • Sometimes whether something is a superseding intervening event is not as clear. For example, another driver’s speeding could be an intervening event. So, you could argue that it was the other car’s speeding, not your driving under the influence that caused the accident. And the prosecution still has to prove that you caused the accident. But this may not count as a superseding intervening event because speeding by other cars on the road is not necessarily unforeseeable and out of the ordinary. On the other hand, if the other car was driving at an extraordinarily high speed, then it may rise to the level of unforeseeable and out of the ordinary.
  • Examples of factors that do NOT count as a superseding intervening event:
    • A victim’s failure to wear a seat belt; or
    • A victim’s failure to wear a helmet.

SIDE NOTE: A victim’s failure to wear a seat belt or helmet cannot be used as a defense to Vehicular Homicide. This is because Arizona law states that drivers should reasonably foresee that people on the road may not wear seat belts or helmets.

Attacking the State’s Evidence. Another way to defend against a Vehicular Homicide charge is to attack the State’s evidence. Examples of ways to challenge the State’s evidence include:

  • Attacking the State’s accident reconstruction to dispute how the accident occurred, including the speeds of the cars involved. This can be done by successfully cross-examining the State’s accident reconstruction expert. Additionally, your attorney can hire an independent accident reconstruction expert to review the evidence and contest the State’s evidence.
  • Challenging the State’s DUI evidence that you were driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs when you caused the accident. You can attack the quality of the police’s underlying DUI investigation, including the reliability of the testing equipment used to determine your alcohol or drug content, and the accuracy of the chemical test results. An independent expert forensic scientist can be hired to assist in challenging any DUI evidence against you.
  • Confronting the State’s eyewitness testimony. Often, the State’s case relies on eyewitness testimony to establish such factors as speeds, driving conditions, and whether a traffic light was green or red. Research, however, has found that eyewitness testimony is one of the most unreliable forms of evidence. So, if the State’s case relies on eyewitness evidence, then your attorney can challenge their unreliable testimony.

Legal Challenges. Your attorney may also raise legal challenges against a vehicular homicide charge by filing and litigating certain legal motions. Examples of possible legal challenges include:

  • Illegal search and seizure. For example, if the police failed to obtain your consent or a valid search warrant to take a sample of your blood for testing or to retrieve data from your car’s Black Box (event data recorder or crash data recorder), then you can fight to have that evidence thrown out.
  • Miranda rights violations. If the police failed to read you your Miranda rights before questioning you, then you can fight to prevent the prosecution from using any of your admissions or statements against you.
  • Right to counsel violations. If you asserted your right to an attorney and the police failed to give you an opportunity to speak with an attorney, then you can fight to have evidence thrown out or to even have your case dismissed. It depends on how the police’s denial of your right to counsel impacted your ability to defend against your Vehicular Homicide charge.

Example. If you are charged with vehicular manslaughter based on a DUI and were denied the right to counsel, then you may have lost the ability to obtain evidence in your favor through an independent blood test. The police’s denial of your right to counsel would have ruined your ability to challenge the prosecution’s evidence against you.

Vehicular Homicide Attorneys

Vehicular Homicide Attorneys

Vehicular homicide charges are very serious crimes that come with harsh penalties including mandatory prison time for a first offense. If you or a loved one have been arrested for or charged with vehicular homicide, you need to hire an experienced vehicular homicide attorney as soon as possible to protect your rights and defend against this serious charge. The vehicular homicide attorneys at Feldman & Royle have extensive experience and knowledge to help you fight these types of charges. Call today for a free and confidential consultation.