Penal Code 191.5(b) PC is the California statute that defines the crime of vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated. People commit this offense when they drive under the influence and engage in some additional negligent act while doing so, and as a result, another person is killed. A conviction is a felony punishable by a state prison term of up to four years.
PC 191.5(b) vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated is sometimes called “vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated with ordinary negligence.” If the defendant is believed to have acted with gross negligence, then the prosecutor will likely charge him/her with the more serious offense of PC 191.5a gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated instead.
Examples of criminal acts
- a person drives with a blood alcohol content (BAC) of .09 while he/she sends a text message to a friend, and then, unknowingly hits a pedestrian who dies instantly.
- a driver under the influence of alcohol weaves in and out of traffic, T-bones a car, and causes the death of another person.
- a man high on cocaine fails to stop at a stop sign and hits another driver, who suddenly dies of a heart attack.
A person accused of a crime under this statute has the right to challenge the accusation with a legal defense. A few common defenses include defendants showing that they:
- were not driving intoxicated or guilty of DUI,
- did not act with negligence, and/or
- did not cause death to a person or end a human life.
A violation of California Penal Code Section 191.5(b) is a wobbler offense. A wobbler is a crime that a prosecutor can charge as either a misdemeanor or a serious felony.
A felony offense is punishable by up to four years in state prison.
Our California criminal defense attorneys will highlight the following in this article:
- 1. How does California law define “vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated”?
- 2. Are there legal defenses to Penal Code 191.5(b) PC?
- 3. What are the penalties?
- 4. Can a person get a conviction expunged?
- 5. Are there related crimes?
1. How does California law define “vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated”?
A prosecutor must prove the following to successfully convict a defendant under this statute:
- the accused drove a vehicle while intoxicated or under the influence of drugs,[i]
- while doing so, he/she committed another misdemeanor, a California infraction, or an otherwise lawful act that carried a high risk of death,
- the accused committed that misdemeanor, infraction, or other act with ordinary negligence, and
- this negligent conduct caused the death of another person.[ii]
A person is said to have driven “while intoxicated” if he/she either:
- violated Vehicle Code 23152a, California’s “driving under the influence” law,
- drove with a blood alcohol level of 0.08 or higher in violation of Vehicle Code 23152b,
- drove under the influence of drugs (DUID) or under the combined influence of alcohol and drugs, or
- drove with a BAC of 0.05 or higher when under the age of 21 (“under 21 DUI”), in violation of Vehicle Code 23140.6.[iii]
Note that “ordinary negligence” is the failure to use reasonable care to prevent reasonably foreseeable harm to oneself or someone else. A person is negligent if he or she:
- does something that a reasonable person would not do in the same situation, or
- fails to do something that a reasonably careful person would do in the same situation.[iv]
2. Are there legal defenses to Penal Code 191.5(b) PC?
Criminal defense lawyers draw upon several legal strategies to help defendants challenge allegations under this statute. A few common ones include showing that an accused:
- was not driving intoxicated.
- did not act with negligence.
- did not cause an unlawful killing.
2.1 Not under the influence
A defendant can always challenge a PC 191.5(b) charge with a DUI defense. One such defense is showing that he/she was not driving while intoxicated or under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Note, though, that the accused may still be subject to vehicular manslaughter charges if he/she drove negligently or in an unlawful manner and killed another human being.
2.2 No negligence
Recall that one way a person is guilty of this offense is if he/she engaged in drunk driving and did so while acting with negligence. This means it is a valid defense for a defendant to show that he/she did not commit a negligent act.
2.3 No death
A defendant can only be guilty under this statute if his actions caused the death of another human being. A defendant, then, can attempt to avoid prosecution by showing that he did not kill another person.
3. What are the penalties?
A violation of Penal Code 191.5(b) is a wobbler. A wobbler is a crime that a prosecutor can charge as either a misdemeanor or a felony depending on:
- the facts of the case, and
- the defendant’s criminal history (similar prior convictions).[v]
A misdemeanor offense is punishable by:
- custody in county jail for up to one year,
- a maximum fine of $1,000, and/or
- misdemeanor (or summary) probation.[vi]
A felony offense is punishable by:
4. Can a person get a conviction expunged?
A party convicted of misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated can get the conviction expunged provided that he/she:
- served his/her jail term, or
- successfully completed probation (whichever was imposed).
A person, though, may not get a felony conviction expunged. This is because expungements are not allowed for convictions that result in prison terms.
5. Are there related crimes?
There are three crimes related to vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated. These are:
- gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated – PC 191.5a,
- vehicular manslaughter – PC 192c, and
- DUI murder/Watson murder.
5.1 Gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated – PC 191.5a
PC 191.5a is the California statute that defines the offense of gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated.
This crime occurs when a motorist, while under the influence of alcohol or drugs and driving with gross negligence (and without malice aforethought), causes an accident in which another person is killed, and death was a probable consequence.
Unlike with a PC 191.5b offense, a violation of this law is always charged as a felony.
5.2 Vehicular manslaughter – PC 192c
Per Penal Code 192c, a person commits vehicular manslaughter when he/she:
- drives in a negligent or unlawful manner, and
- causes the death of another person.
Unlike with vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, a person can violate this statute even if the party is driving sober.
5.3 DUI murder/Watson murder
As with a PC 191.5(b) charge, a person is only guilty under this law if the party actually takes another life.
For additional guidance or to discuss your case with a criminal defense lawyer, we invite you to contact our law firm at the Shouse Law Group. Our attorneys provide both free consultations and legal advice you can trust.
They also represent clients throughout California, including those in Los Angeles, Los Angeles County, Orange County, and Ventura.
[iii] CALCRIM No. 591 – Vehicular Manslaughter While Intoxicated.
[vi] California Penal Code 191.5 PC.
[vii] See same.