For a long time, many states in the United States of America have relied heavily on federal and state laws on manslaughter to deal with reckless driving. However, following many road carnages in the country, different states have over the last few decades enacted different statutes that currently constitute vehicular manslaughter law. This law treats reckless driving as a specific felony thereby requires drivers to act responsibly (Scheb, & Scheb, 2013).
For this assignment, I have chosen vehicular manslaughter as my topic of interest. This term refers to wrongful killing of other people other than drivers that result from reckless driving, which might involve alcoholism or abuse of other types of drugs (Carper, McKinsey, & West, 2008). Based on the manner of occurrence, vehicular manslaughter can be classified as either voluntary or involuntary. Voluntary manslaughter is an intentional form of killing whereas involuntary manslaughter is an accidental killing (Gardner, & Anderson, 2014). When criminal negligence is involved in vehicular manslaughter, defendants are usually charged with unintentional killing (Cole, Smith, & DeJong, 2016). However, in absence of criminal negligence, defendants receive life sentences in prison.
When making decisions, judges and magistrates usually consider manslaughter as excusable, justifiable or criminal depending on circumstances of the killing as well as the mind state of the killer. In spite of this fact, most judges and magistrates consider vehicular manslaughter as criminal because drivers are not supposed to drive recklessly or under the influence of drugs such as alcohol. As a result, when charged with this type of felony, defendants must do a lot of work to convince judges and magistrates that killing did not occur intentionally. Otherwise, if they do not convince them that killing did not occur intentionally, they might receive life sentences in jails. This notwithstanding, vehicular manslaughter is treated as manslaughter rather than murder because killing usually occurs without malice aforethought (Hall, 2006). However, even if killing occurs without malice aforethought, drivers cannot justify their acts of drunkenness. As a result, they should be held responsible for their acts that result to death of other people.
This essay starts by looking at historical development of vehicular manslaughter in USA before looking at state laws on the same and the effects of the law on average Americans. The historical part of the essay concerns itself with the major steps that have been made in this area whereas the state law part of the essay evaluates the way states deal with the issue. The last part deals with the manner in which the law in question affects the daily life of an average American.
Under normal circumstance, one would expect vehicular manslaughter law to be as old as motor vehicles. However, this is not the case because after the invention of motor vehicle and the joy that came with it, people did not think that this noble invention would endanger their lives. As a result, it took them some time to realize that motor vehicles were endangering life. Upon realizing this, the US government countered the problem by requiring all vehicle owners to register their vehicles. Drivers were also required to register themselves with the government. For some time, the registration practice appeared to solve the problem, but it did not solve it in totality. The registration practice was accompanied by regulation of driving through speed limits. Although these practices were aimed at bringing sanity in transport industry, motor vehicle owners opposed it. They argued that motor vehicles were supposed to be governed by the rules that governed horse-drawn vehicles (Brenner, 2007). The basis of this argument was that there was no big difference between vehicles drawn by horses and those controlled by drivers. If anything, those controlled by drivers were better off because drivers could communicate. Based on this argument, motor vehicle owners succeeded in countering government’s measures on road safety, but this counter did not last for long because of the number of road injuries. Majority of state governments responded to road injuries by imposing speed limits.
As time went by, the government introduced precautionary measures such as fitting vehicles with safety gargets. Drivers were also required to take precautionary measures to minimize road accidents especially when encountering pedestrians and horse-drawn vehicles. This move was seen as placing some obligation on drivers. While this was taking place, motor vehicles were fitted with devices for signaling and horns among other devices to signal pedestrians. With time, road licenses were introduced. Rhode Island became the first states to introduce these licenses. The aim of introducing these licenses was to separate qualified drivers from unqualified ones. At this pointing time, the focus of road safety was not on alcoholism, but on physical capability to drive, age and knowledge of traffic laws. In line with this focus, all states in USA had managed to pass laws that required drivers to obtain road licenses by the end of 1954 (Brenner, 2007).
Although the above measures were instrumental in reducing road accidents, they did not eliminate them in totality because between 1922 and 1930 the number of road accidents had risen from 15,000 to 32,000 (Brenner, 2007). The same results were witnessed in other parts of the world. Population experts attributed this increase in road accidents to highway driving. In line with this claim, effort was made to impose stricter road safety measures than those used before. This saw the introduction of a traffic law that criminalized the act of driving without a driver’s license. It also saw the banning of minors from driving vehicles with the minimum driving age being set at fourteen years in 1925. The speed limit law was also revised. Drug addicts and alcoholics were barred from obtaining driving licenses. The minimum driving age was raised to sixteen in 1931. In addition, New York State required drivers to drive carefully and in prudent manner. It also required drivers to drive at a speed that would not endanger life and property. During this time, a speed limit of over 30 miles per hour was an indication of reckless driving.
At the onset of the twentieth century, law makers in USA were developing a criminal liability law known as public welfare offense. This move was informed by an emphasis of protecting public and social interests rather than protecting individual interests as motor vehicle owners had done for a long period. Following this practice, most states started seeing and classifying vehicular manslaughter as a felony. They defined it and included it in their state laws. The vehicular manslaughter law that resulted out of this practice has its origin from the 1960s uniform vehicle code (Brenner, 2007). These were model laws that were drafted by a certain non-profit group that was dedicated to standardizing and improving traffic laws at state level. Different states have developed their state vehicular manslaughter laws from this model law. Some have referred to it as vehicular homicide while others have referred to it as homicide by vehicle.
Different states in USA have different laws on deaths that result from reckless driving. This part of the essay will highlight a number of states with their state laws on vehicular manslaughter. Only three states namely Arizona, Montana and Alaska will be excluded in this essay because they do not have this type of law (Hess, Orthmann & Cho, 2014).
California is among the states with strictest laws on vehicular manslaughter because rather than treating it as crime generally, it classifies it into different categories. These categories depend on degree of recklessness and the type of drug involved in the killing. The most common categories of vehicular manslaughter in the state include the general vehicular manslaughter; second degree murder; gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated and vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated. In all these categories, the prosecution is supposed to prove that defendants committed wrongful acts that led to death of victims and that they should be held accountable for those acts. The second degree murder charges are reserved for most fatal cases that have strong indications that drivers were intoxicated at the time of accident and that they caused death intentionally. These charges attract imprisonment of between zero and ten years. The jail term as in other crimes depend on the charges leveled against defendants. The crime attracts a fine that does not exceed $10,000 (Gardner, & Anderson, 2014).
In Minnesota State this type of crime is treated slightly different from the way it is treated in California. However, the concept is almost similar to that of California. Under state’s criminal law, a person is considered to have committed vehicular manslaughter if he/she causes death under the following conditions. First, if the person causes death in a grossly negligent manner while driving meaning that the person could have avoided the crime. Second, if the person violates the existing driving while intoxicated (DWI) laws. Third, if the person leaves the crime scene in violation of state’s hit-and-run law that establishes that the person should not leave the crime scene after the accident. Fourth, if the person commits the crime under the influence of controlled substance or alcohol or a combination of the two (Hall, 2006). Fifth, if the accident occurs when the driver is under the influence of alcohol of over 0.08 concentrations. These conditions form the basis of vehicular manslaughter crime in Minnesota State. Although the conditions are well elaborated, the sentence does not exceed ten years in prison. At the same time, the accused person might pay a fine that does not exceed $20,000.
The Louisiana state has a more specific vehicular manslaughter law. This law restricts the offense to motor vehicles and other means of transport. For the person to be charged with this type of offense he/she should be driving under the influence of controlled substance or alcohol at the time of the accident. The jail term for this offense ranges between five and thirty years. Alternatively, the person can pay a fine of between $2,000 and $15,000 or serve a jail term and pay the fine.
In Washington, drivers are accused of vehicular manslaughter if at the time of accident they were driving under the influence of drugs or intoxicating liquor, they were driving recklessly or they disregarded the safety of other people. In contrast to other states, drivers are held to account for such offenses if the injured persons die within three years from the time of accident. The offense is classified as class A felony and those found guilty of it can serve between 31 and 177 months in jail or serve life imprisonment. They might as well pay fines that do not exceed $50,000.
In Georgia, the offense in question is termed as homicide by vehicle and it is defined as the unlawful killing of other persons using vehicles. For a person to be guilty of this offense he/she does not need to have premeditation, malice aforethought or intent to kill. The person only needs to commit the offense as defined by the law. The two types of offenses of homicide by vehicle in the state include first and second degree homicide by vehicle. A person charged with first degree homicide serves between 3 and 15 years in jail, but habitual offenders serve between 5 and 20 years in jail. A person charged with second degree homicide serves a jail term of upto one year and/or a fine that does not exceed $1,000. Drivers are guilty of first degree homicide if they drive recklessly; drive under the influence of drugs or alcohol; do not stop after collision; or are declared as habitual offenders (Cole, Smith & DeJong, 2016).
In Alabama, drivers that are found guilty of the offense in question serve between one and ten years in jail. They also pay fines of between $500 and $15,000 depending on the nature and severity of the offenses they commit. In Alaska, drivers found guilty of this offense serve between one to ninety nine years in jail. Depending on the degree of offense, a person can be charged with criminally negligent homicide, manslaughter or second degree murder. In Arkansas, those found guilty of the offense serve between five and twenty years in prison. They also pay fines that do not exceed $15,000 (Cole, Smith & DeJong, 2016).
In Colorado, the jail term is less than 12 years for non-aggravated offenses, but 24 years for the aggravated offenses. In Connecticut, the jail term for the offenders is between one and ten years. A person is guilty of manslaughter with motor vehicle if at the time of accident the person was driving under the influence of drug or intoxicating liquor. The fine does not exceed $10,000. In Delaware, those found guilty of the offense serve between one and five years in jail. In Florida, the offenders serve less than 15 years in jail. They also pay fines that do not exceed $10,000. The jail terms for offender in Hawaii do not exceed ten years. The classes of this offense in the state include class B, class C and misdemeanor. The fine for those charged with first degree offenses does not exceed $25,000 (Hall, 2006).
Overall, the above state laws are similar in terms of what they refer to when defining vehicular manslaughter. However, they define the term differently. Some refer to it as vehicular manslaughter while others refer to it as homicide by vehicle or vehicular homicide. Although this does not bring a lot of difference, it determines the manner in which states define the offense. At the same time, it determines the fine and the jail term for the same. In this respect, state laws on vehicular manslaughter differ in terms of the length of jail term, fine and conditions under which one is accused of the offense. In some states, drivers are guilty of the offense for merely driving recklessly while in other states prosecutions have to prove beyond reasonable doubt that drivers are guilty of the offense.
Effects of the law on average American
Although vehicular manslaughter law does not address itself to ordinary citizens directly, it impacts their lives significantly in the sense that they are victims of reckless driving. Indeed, when irresponsible drivers are punished for their reckless driving practices, it is the ordinary citizens that benefit significantly. As an illustration of the fact that American citizens are the major beneficiary of vehicular manslaughter law, Staples claims that between 2008 and 2009 about 22,550 Americans lost their lives due to drunk-driving accidents (Staples, 2012). Given that the number of road accidents has been on the rise annually, the law in question has been instrumental in holding reckless drivers responsible for their bad behaviors. This in return might have cautioned drivers from driving when drunk and in so doing; it might have reduced the number of people that lose their lives due to drunk-driving.
As highlighted earlier on, the invention of motor vehicles did not come with benefits only, but it also came with some disadvantages. At first people were concerned with fatalities and loss of limbs, but as time progressed and technology advanced in motor vehicle industry, speed became a concern as well (Brenner, 2007). Drivers became irresponsible to the extent that they could drink and drive. In so doing, death became a concern in transport industry. To date this is a major problem on our roads. As a way of ensuring that deaths do not occur on our roads anyhow, vehicular manslaughter law was developed. The law stipulates the conditions that constitute vehicular manslaughter so that drunk drivers can be discouraged from driving vehicles. Inasmuch as it might not be possible to eliminate accidents from our roads completely, the law in question tries to ensure that accidents resulting from alcoholism and drug abuse are eliminated from our roads. Given that the law addresses itself to death of other people other than drivers, then the law benefits average Americans significantly. It ensures that they are safe from deaths that result from reckless driving.
Generally, the law in question discourages drivers from taking alcohol or abusing other types of drugs. It also discourages drivers from driving under the influence of those drugs. Basically, it specifies what drivers should do and not do every time they are drunk. From a criminal justice perspective, it tries to bar crime from occurring by stipulating what drivers should do. By so doing, responsible drivers that respect and obey the law do not drive while drunk. Inasmuch as one might argue that responsible drivers would not drink and drive even in the absence of vehicular manslaughter law, there are those drivers that do not drive under the influence of drugs because the law discourages them from doing so. This does not only stop drivers from being arrested for driving while drunk, but it also minimizes the number of road accidents that occur due to drunkenness. Given that American citizens might be the first victims of reckless driving, their lives are protected any time drivers are discouraged from driving under the influence of drugs. More importantly, they are the major beneficiaries when irresponsible drivers are held responsible for their bad behaviors. Based on these facts, the average Americans are the major beneficiaries of vehicular manslaughter law.
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Carper, D., McKinsey, J. & West, B. (2008). Understanding the law. Mason: Thomson/west.
Cole, G., Smith, C. & DeJong, C. (2016). The American system of criminal justice. New York: Cengage learning.
Gardner, T., & Anderson, T. (2014). Criminal law. New York: Cengage learning.
Hall, K. (2006). The oxford companion to American law. Oxford: Oxford university press.
Hess, K., Orthmann, C. & Cho, H. (2014). Police operations: theory and practice. Delmar: Cengage learning.
Scheb, J. & Scheb, J. (2013). Criminal law and procedure. New York: Cengage learning.
Staples, A. (2012). Another small step in America’s battle against drunk driving: how the spending clause can provide more uniform sentences for drunk-driving fatalities. New England law review, 46, 353-385.