If you or a family member was arrested and charged with automobile homicide or vehicular manslaughter in Utah, it is imperative that you contact a criminal defense attorney immediately. A conviction of homicide or manslaughter can result in many years of prison time, thousands of dollars in fines, loss of your driver’s license, a permanent criminal record, and irreversible damage to your career, relationships, and reputation. Strategic legal representation can make the difference between having your case dismissed, and going to prison for many years.
Do not wait to seek legal counsel if you or a loved one is under investigation for suspected vehicular homicide. Contact the law offices of Overson & Sheen right away at (801) 895-3143 for a free consultation. Though based in Salt Lake City, our criminal defense law firm handles homicide cases throughout Utah.
Vehicular Homicide Definition Under Utah Code 76-5-207
Criminal homicide is the act of taking another human being’s life. Vehicular homicide, which is called “automobile homicide” in Utah, is a type of homicide that is charged after a person has been struck and killed by a vehicle. This includes fatal drunk driving accidents and accidents that were caused by distracted driving, such as texting while driving, which is a violation of state law.
The legal definition of vehicular homicide is located at Utah Code § 76-5-207. In addition to cars, trucks, vans, and other vehicles, this statute also extends to motorcycles, boats, and even airplanes.
The first fact that the prosecutor must prove is that the defendant operated a vehicle “in a negligent manner,” which is a third degree felony, or “in a criminally negligent manner,” which is a second degree felony and therefore subject to tougher sentencing.
“Negligence” is defined as “failure to exercise [the] degree of care that reasonable… [people] exercise under… similar circumstances”: put simply, failure to take reasonable precautions while driving. A person is accused of acting with “criminal negligence,” which is more serious, if they should have known that their actions would create a major, unjustifiable risk to someone’s safety.
In addition to proving that the defendant was negligent or criminally negligent, the prosecutor also needs to prove at least one of the following facts:
- The defendant was driving with a BAC (blood alcohol content) of 0.08 or higher.
- The defendant returned a blood test or breathalyzer score of 0.08 or higher.
- The defendant was “incapable of safely operating a vehicle” due to being under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol.
The statute also makes two critical points about automobile homicide charges in Utah:
- The defendant will be charged separately for each person who was killed.
- It is not a defense that the defendant was “legally entitled to use alcohol or a drug,” so, for example, it would not be a defense that the defendant was using medical marijuana (in Utah, CBD oil).
In December 2018, Utah will update the law to be stricter by reducing the BAC from 0.08 to 0.05. Until then, the existing law remains in effect.
Automobile Homicide Sentence in Utah
Automobile homicide is a felony, and can therefore result in tough penalties for defendants who are convicted. To reiterate, automobile homicide is a third degree felony if the driver acted with negligence, and a second degree felony if the driver acted with criminal negligence.
A defendant can be sentenced to up to five years in prison for third degree felony vehicular homicide, though in some cases a third degree felony results in probation rather than prison time. In addition to being incarcerated, the defendant can also be fined up to $5,000.
The punishment for second degree felony vehicular homicide is harsher, because the offense is considered more serious: a prison sentence ranging from one to 15 years, and a fine as great as $10,000.
Penalty for Driving While Texting
Utah has a separate law, located at Utah Code § 76-5-207.5, for fatal accidents that occur while the driver is texting or otherwise distracted by a phone. The full name for this offense is “automobile homicide involving using a handheld wireless communication device while driving.”
Like automobile homicide, this crime is either a third or second degree felony depending on whether the driver was negligent or criminally negligent. The prosecutor does not need to show that the defendant was impaired or intoxicated by drugs or alcohol.
Vehicular Manslaughter License Suspension
Manslaughter, which is charged under Utah Code § 76-5-205, is a separate crime from automobile homicide. Homicide is manslaughter if the defendant causes another person’s death by acting “recklessly” (as opposed to negligently). A person is reckless when “he [or she] is aware of but consciously disregards a substantial and unjustifiable risk.”
This is similar to criminal negligence, but there is a subtle difference. With criminal negligence, a person should merely know of a risk. With recklessness, the person actually ignores or dismisses (“consciously disregards”) that risk.
There are also situations where a person who would otherwise be charged with murder, is charged with manslaughter. Depending on the circumstances, a Utah homicide defense lawyer may be able to have murder charges reduced to manslaughter charges.
Manslaughter is a second degree felony, meaning the sentence ranges from one to 15 years with a maximum criminal fine of $10,000. Utah Code § 76-5-205(3)(a) also adds that any defendant convicted of manslaughter “shall have [their] driver license revoked… if the death of another person results from driving a motor vehicle.”
Contact a Salt Lake City Vehicular Homicide Attorney
Vehicular homicide and vehicular manslaughter are among the most serious offenses to be charged with in Utah. It is not in your best interests to defend yourself if you have been accused of these crimes. You are urged to contact a Salt Lake City vehicular homicide defense lawyer immediately for help. A criminal attorney can advise you of your constitutional rights, protect you from being abused by the police, and assess your case to identify and pursue the strongest defense strategy.
Overson & Sheen handles homicide cases throughout Utah. We are also able to make emergency visits to county jails and holding centers statewide. For a free and confidential legal consultation, contact our law offices at (801) 895-3143 right away.