Defending Vehicular Homicide Charges

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By: Bill Henry
PublishedDec 1, 2021
5 minute read

If you are the driver involved in a crash that kills someone else and police suspect you were acting recklessly, you’ll be charged with vehicular homicide. The penalties for a vehicular homicide conviction are severe, and they significantly increase if drugs or alcohol are suspected to have played a role in the incident.

In this article, you’ll learn about what constitutes vehicular homicide, the penalties associated with it, and which defenses you and your lawyer may be able to use to get your charges dismissed or negotiate a plea deal.

Get a Criminal Defense Attorney if You’re Charged with Vehicular Homicide

If you’re charged with vehicular homicide, the first step to take is to contact a criminal defense attorney. Schedule a meeting with a member of our Criminal Defense Team to discuss your potential legal options. Call 303-688-0944 to set up that appointment.

vehicular homicide

If you follow the National Football League, you probably heard about the former Las Vegas Raiders wide receiver charged with two felony counts of driving under the influence.

Nevada prosecutors say Henry Ruggs III had a blood-alcohol level twice the legal limit when he slammed his Corvette into a woman’s vehicle causing her death. Ruggs faces mandatory prison time — up to 20 years — if he’s convicted of felony DUIs.

How Colorado Law Defines Vehicular Homicide

The definition and penalties for vehicular homicide vary from state to state. In Colorado, state law indicates vehicular homicide occurs when:

“a person operates or drives a motor vehicle in a reckless manner, and such conduct is the proximate cause of the death of another, such person commits vehicular homicide.” Colorado Revised Statute 18-3-106

Vehicular Homicide is a Felony in Colorado

You face felonies if you’re charged with vehicular homicide. Felony convictions are very serious as you risk losing some of your constitutional rights, such as voting during incarceration or possessing a firearm after your release.

Depending on the circumstances of the crash, you could be charged with a class 3 or class 4 felony. For instance, were you excessively speeding when the incident occurred or had you consumed alcohol or taken drugs?

Class 3 Felony

The more serious of the two felonies is the class 3 felony. If drugs, alcohol, or both were in your system at the time of the crash, then you’re looking at a class 3 felony charge.

How Drugs Play a Role in Vehicular Homicide Charges

State law considers more than just illicit street drugs in vehicular homicide cases. For the purposes of a vehicular homicide charge, state law includes all drugs recognized by official U.S. medicinal publications. That includes traditional prescription medications and homeopathic supplements. That means, your own medications could lead to vehicular homicide charges.

Consider this scenario:

Diane recently underwent surgery, and her physician prescribed her an opiate pain medicine. She takes a pill before she leaves her house to run errands. On this day, Diane becomes drowsy while she’s driving, and she crosses the middle line into oncoming traffic. She crashes head-on into another car, and the driver is killed.

Diane does not understand how she could be charged with vehicular homicide. After all, her doctor gave her the prescription for the medicine. Plus, she never intended to kill anyone that day. In Colorado, neither of these factors matters in a vehicular homicide case.

As far as prescribed medications, Colorado law does not allow people to use a valid prescription as a defense against vehicular homicide charges. CRS 18-3-106 (1)(b)(III)

Now let’s explore the intent aspect of vehicular homicide.

Your Lack of Intent to Kill Someone Does Not Matter

In the above scenario, Diane says she never intended to kill anyone when she ran errands after taking a legal prescription pain medicine. While some crimes require the prosecutor to prove a defendant intended to carry out the crime with which they have been charged, that is NOT the case for felony vehicular homicide.

A class 3 felony vehicular homicide charge is called a strict liability crime in the legal world. That means if you kill someone while recklessly operating a vehicle, the prosecutor does not need to prove you intended to cause their death to obtain a conviction.

Misused Everyday Substances are Considered Drugs

Glues, aerosols, and other toxic vapors that cause nervous system changes when inhaled are deemed to be drugs in vehicular homicide cases. CRS 18-3-106 (1)(b)(II) 

Class 4 Felony

If drugs or alcohol were not involved in the fatal accident but you were still acting recklessly, say weaving in and out of traffic at high speeds, then you’ll be charged with a class 4 felony.

Examples of Reckless Driving:
  • Excessive speeding, such as double or even triple the speed limit
  • Intentionally running red lights and stop signs
  • Refusing to yield to pedestrians or stopped school buses

Other Possible Charges

Depending on the circumstances of the incident, you could face additional crimes such as criminally negligent homicide, manslaughter, and possibly even second- or first-degree murder.

Whether the district attorney’s office decides to pursue other charges largely relies upon the seriousness of the incident and your underlying behavior. If the situation is so incredibly unconscionable, the prosecutor could charge a higher crime to merely send a message.

Penalties for Vehicular Homicide in Colorado

Probation may be a possibility for some individuals convicted of vehicular homicide. If that’s the case, you may be placed on probation for up to five years. Most of the time, though, prosecutors aggressively seek prison time when someone is killed by a reckless driver.

Vehicular Homicide Caused by DUI:
  • four to 12 years in prison
  • $3,000 to $750,000 in fines
Vehicular Homicide Caused by Recklessness:
  • two to six years in prison
  • $2,000 to $500,000 in fines

If the court finds there were extraordinary aggravating circumstances in your case, the maximum sentence doubles.

Statutory Aggravating Circumstances Include: 
  • You have previously been convicted of a crime of violence
  • You were a prison or jail escapee at the time of the incident
  • You are out on parole for another felony
  • You are waiting to be sentenced for a felony probation revocation
  • You are a juvenile out on bond for a delinquent act that would be considered a felony if you were an adult
    C.R.S. 18-1.3-401(8)(a)-(b)
Examples of Non-Statutory Aggravating Circumstances: 
  • Having no regard for human life, such as driving 120 mph in a school zone
  • Having a general criminal history, such as a string of prior DUIs
  • Displaying a lack of empathy for killing the victims

The non-statutory aggravating factors are not set in stone, so to speak. The prosecution must argue them before the court, and the court will decide whether to include the aggravating circumstances.

Defenses for Vehicular Homicide

Your criminal defense team will work to develop a strong defense for your case. The goal is to get you the best possible outcome, whether that’s having your charges dismissed altogether or negotiating reduced charges or a plea deal.

Below are some common defenses to vehicular homicide. However, it’s important to know that every case has its own set of unique circumstances. And the strategies your defense lawyer takes are contingent upon the facts of your case.

The Proximate Cause

A vehicular homicide charge hinges on whether your driving was the proximate cause of the other driver’s death. We will review all of the evidence to determine if your driving conduct was really the proximate cause of the victim’s death.

You Were Not Impaired

If police suspect you of being under the influence of a substance in a fatal crash, you will be required to submit to testing such as a blood draw or urine analysis. Your attorney will review all of the testing protocols to ensure Colorado law was followed. Your attorney will look for questionable testing procedures and test results.

You should know that if you refuse to cooperate, “the test or tests may be performed at the direction of a law enforcement officer having probable cause, without [your] authorization or consent.” CRS 18-3-106 (4)(a)

You Were Not Reckless

Reckless driving means you were aware that the way you were driving could endanger those around you. Your team will consider all the evidence to determine whether you were really acting recklessly when the accident happened.

Negotiating a Plea Deal

Vehicular homicide is a crime that falls under Colorado’s Victim Rights Act. If your attorney works out a plea deal for you with the prosecution, the victim’s family in your case has a right to be notified and discuss the plea deal with the prosecutor. This can sometimes hinder negotiations.

Driving While Ability Impaired

Beginning March 1, 2022, you can be charged with vehicular homicide if you kill someone while driving while ability impaired.

Most people are familiar with a DUI or driving under the influence charge. In most states, including our own, if your blood alcohol is .08% or higher, then you are considered to be driving under the influence of alcohol.

Many people make the mistake of thinking that they cannot be charged by police if their blood alcohol is below .08%. In Colorado, you can be charged with a DWAI, or driving while ability impaired, if your blood alcohol level is between .05% and .08%.

That means you can be charged with vehicular homicide if you’re driving buzzed, as it’s popularly called, and you cause a fatal crash. Again, this takes effect in March 2022.

Talk to a Criminal Defense Attorney 

This legal guide provides good information about defending vehicular homicide charges, but it is general information. You should seek the experience of a vehicular homicide defense attorney to challenge the prosecution for you.

A felony conviction can change permanently change the trajectory of your life. Let’s start building your defense today. Schedule a meeting with a member of our Criminal Defense Team to talk about your case. Call 303-688-0944 to set up that appointment.

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