Introduction to Vehicular Manslaughter in Arizona – Phoenix DUI Attorney

introduction to vehicular manslaughter in arizona explained by a phoenix dui attorneyThere is no specific category for vehicular manslaugter in Arizona law, meaning that an act of manslaughter, whether it be on foot or in a vehicle, is punished identically.  However, the pool of evidence and circumstances affecting the litigation of a vehicular manslaughter charge is very much distinct from a normal manslaughter charge, and must be treated as such.  This article will discuss what constitutes manslaughter, how vehicular manslaughter is different, and some possible defense strategies in court.

What Constitutes Manslaughter:

According to Arizona Revised Statute 13-1103, a person may be guilty of manslaughter if they do one of the following:

-Recklessly cause the death of another

– Commit second degree murder in a sudden quarrel or heat of passion

-Knowingly assist in another’s suicide

-Knowingly or recklessly causing the death of an unborn child by physically injuring the child’s               mother

As the name suggests, vehicular manslaughter is to commit any of these acts while in a vehicle or by using the vehicle as the weapon itself, which is the more common scenario.  To convict someone of vehicular manslaughter, the prosecution must prove that the driver consciously disregarded significant risks, and deviated from the behavior of a reasonable person.  In other words, the driver knowingly took an unjustifiable risk which resulted in the death of another.

Although judge discretion plays a big role in the determination of knowledge and behavior, there are still certain written standards of conduct which act as benchmarks for conviction.  There are four factors lawmakers imbued with these standards: DUI restrictions, excessive speed, aggressive driving, and racing.  Perhaps because it is difficult to discern an accident from a manslaughter crime based on mere testimony, violation of these clear, written standards will often comprise the bulk of the prosecutory evidence.

vehicular manslaughter in arizonaIf you are charged with vehicular manslaughter and are tested at a blood alcohol level over the legal limit of 0.08, you are in serious trouble.  The very act of driving under the influence (DUI) is serious enough, but that impairment leading to the death of another is unforgiveable in the eyes of the law.  If you are charged with a DUI vehicular manslaughter, be prepared to plead guilty.  If you are lucky, your sentencing will be reduced in lieu of drug and alcohol classes for first time offenders.

The second factor which results in swift conviction is proof of excessive speed.  If the prosecution can prove that you exceeded thirty five miles per hour in a school zone, twenty over the speed limit in a residential or business area, or eighty five miles per hour in any other area, defense options are drastically reduced.  This excessive speed provides the burden of proof necessary- conscious intent and deviated behavior based on a calculated risk.  If you violated these excessive speed standards and were recorded doing so, there are very few defense options available.  For a prosecutor, ambiguity is the enemy, making hardline laws like these their best friend.  Indeed, speed limits for vehicular manslaughter cases are perhaps the greatest tool a prosecutor could have at their disposal- a line in the sand which when crossed results in near-automatic conviction.

The aggressive driving standards implemented by Arizona lawmakers follow a more discretionary trend.  There are no hard lines in the sand, but rather rules of behavior, compliance of which is subject to legal discretion.  The following is a list of standards, violation of which will usually lead to conviction:

-Failure to obey traffic control devices, such as stop signs

-Overtake or pass another vehicle on the right by driving off pavement or main traveled portions   of the roadway

-Make an unsafe lane change

-Follow too closely

-Fail to yield to right of way

-Engage in driving that endangers another person or vehicle

Although these are all traffic violations, and thus illegal, they fill far less burden of proof than the previous violations.  For one, as stated above, many of these violations are based on discretion.  What is an ‘unsafe’ lane change?  What is too close?  Moreover, violating these traffic standards do less in providing answers to the pertinent manslaughter questions.  Was the violation conscious or just an accident?  Was it a deviation from the behavior of a reasonable person?  These violations appear to be stepping stones in a successful vehicular manslaughter conviction, but are certainly not trump cards like DUI or speed limit violations.

The final standard of conduct outlined by Arizona law is racing.  If your manslaughter charge involved racing, a speed competition, a drag race, acceleration contest or any other form of speed exhibition, your manslaughter charge will likely result in a conviction.  Street racing is an obvious legal no-no, and anybody who kills another while doing so deserves the punishment given to them.

Possible Defenses:

defenses to vehicular manslaughter in arizonaIf you have been charged with vehicular manslaughter, the first thing to do is hire an experienced defense attorney.  Your attorney will provide a plan catered to your particular circumstances.  Unless the scene of the crime was rife with witnesses, experienced attorneys will often orally recreate the scene for the judge and jury in a technique called accident reconstruction.  Of course, the attorney will omit certain unpleasant details if necessary.  The central purpose of this accident reconstruction is to subtly shift blame from the defendant to the victim.  For instance, say the prosecution has evidence that the defendant drove through a stop sign and killed a pedestrian, something which should ensure conviction of manslaughter.  A defense attorney may raise the question: “Was the pedestrian walking in a crosswalk, or illegally jaywalking?”  Although there is still negative evidence raised against the defendant, the blame becomes more equally distributed between the defendant and victim.

The same defense can be used in a driver/driver collision.  The defense attorney must always attempt to shift the blame from the defendant to the victim.  This is inherently a difficult task to achieve, simply based on our cultural ethics; a jury is going to feel uneasy about shifting blame to a dead person in favor of that person’s slaughterer.  Although this defense tactic does raise difficult moral questions, they are also necessary ones.  Driving is a dangerous act, and lawmakers are aware of this.  They are aware of mistakes, and are careful to distinguish between brazen recklessness and tragic accidents.  So, although it is an uphill battle for the defense in winning over a morally wary jury, judges are similarly wary of convicting mere accident-doers.

A second defense is to deny meeting the state’s standards of recklessness.  As stated above, this is made far more difficult when the prosecution has objective data points levied against you like blood alcohol content and speed limit violations.  However, even though the requirement for recklessness is provided through this evidence, it does not equally provide evidence of conscious knowledge or deviation from normal behavior- two things which must be present to constitute manslaughter.  For instance, say a driver was clocked at 100 miles per hour when they collided with another vehicle and killed the other driver.  First, the attorney would employ the first defense strategy and ask the question: “how fast was the other driver going?”  Then, the attorney must address the circumstances.  What if the driver was only driving 100 miles per hour because he was on an empty interstate highway?  Even though it exceeds the standard of recklessness of 85 miles per hour, the attorney could posit that this may not be a deviation from normal behavior, or an unjustifiable risk.

A third defense is to invoke what is called a supervening cause.  In practice,employing a supervening cause defense is to claim that it was not in fact the defendant who killed the victim, but someone treating them after the accident.  For instance, if you hit someone with your car and they lived, but died later due to a medical accident, this defense could be used.  However, this is an incredibly controversial defense tactic, because it places the blame on a doctor or medic who had the best intentions to save the victim.  Moreover, it raises incredibly challenging quandrys-both moral and legal- which our society has no answer.  Can medical personnel be held accountable for their mistakes, even if they were conducting themselves to the best of their ability?  Was the person even savable after the accident?  The answers to these questions will depend largely on the health status of the person after the accident, and the skill of the lawyers on both sides of the aisle.

Manslaughter is a strange criminal charge because it raises more moral questions than legal ones.  The true difference between manslaughter and murder is intent, but does that matter to the loved ones of the victim?  Because there is an element of justice pursuit in manslaughter charges, defense can prove to be very difficult.  Thus, the greatest defense tactic is to treat the victim’s memory with the utmost respect.  Although it is important to redirect some of the blame, this should be done less by placing the impetus of blame on the victim, and more by obfuscating the circumstances of the accident.  How do you know what the defendant did, how do you know they did so consciously, and how do you know they were aware of the risk associated?  All the while, be profusely sorry for the loss of the victim, and offer help to the family whenever possible.  Lessening the wrath of the prosecution will do a great deal in building a successful defense.  Ariano & Associates, Arizona’s 24 Hour Law Firm.

Penalties:

Apenalties associated with vehicular manslaughter in arizona vehicular manslaughter charge in the state of Arizona is a Class 2 felony, meaning a first time offender will receive a prison sentencing range of seven to twenty one years, with a presumptive ten year sentence.  With a prior felony conviction, the range increases to between fourteen and twenty eight years, with a presumptive sentence of fifteen years and nine months.  Having two prior felony convictions will result in a sentencing range of twenty one to thirty five years, with a presumptive sentence of twenty eight years.

Although these sentencing ranges seem grossly high for something which may have been an accident, they are still significantly lower than those of outright murder.  In fact, those accused of murder will use plea agreements to lessen their charge to manslaughter by claiming a possible justification or accidental element to the homicide.  For more information see the Arizona Revised Statute on manslaughter.

A manslaughter charge is scary and upsetting for the defendant, especially if it was committed by accident.  The shame of killing combined with the fear of long-term prison time is enough to topple even the most well-balanced defendant.  If you have been accused of vehicular manslaughter, know that there are very clear paths to defense with the right attorney.  Denying conscious intent, aberration of normal behavior, and violation of state conduct standards are all tried and true methods to avoiding detrimental penalty.  Contact an experienced DUI lawyer in Phoenix or Tucson for more information.

Interested in learning more about vehicular manslaughter in the state of Arizona?  We’d love to hear from you!  Comment below or reach out to us on our social media channels.  If you need criminal defense assistance for a vehicular manslaughter charge in the state of Arizona, contact an experienced defense attorney today.