Penalties for Vehicular Homicide in Florida

Accidents, they say, will happen. It stands to reason, therefore, that not every auto collision in which a person died should be prosecuted as a homicide offense in Florida. Whether a driver will face charges of vehicular homicide in Florida will depend on how the crash occurred, the manner of operation of the drivers involved, and whether the driver who caused the accident or somehow contributed to the accident happening was impaired by alcohol, drugs, or both at the time of the incident. 

Under Florida statutes §775.071, a motorist is guilty of vehicular homicide when the person drives recklessly and kills another. Recklessness is a difficult concept to define easily. Recklessness, under Florida law, is behavior that is likely to cause death or great bodily harm. Sometimes recklessness is defined under Florida law as a wanton and willful disregard for the safety of others. Again, the definition is not very helpful. However, anyone charged with vehicular homicide should understand is that recklessness is conduct that is more egregious than simple negligence.

The difference between civil negligence and recklessness is stark. When a person is injured in a Florida car accident and pursues a personal injury claim, the civil standard of negligence in Florida controls the outcome of the case. The civil standard of negligence in Florida simply means that the driver did not follow a duty of care and, because of the failure of the driver to follow that duty, a crash occurred, and the crash took away a person’s life. The criminal standard of recklessness is more exacting. Otherwise, someone would be cited for a crime every time two cars collided. 

The government has to prove the person charged guilty to win a conviction. Guilt means proving each element of every charge beyond a reasonable doubt. Therefore, to prove a person guilty of vehicular manslaughter, the state’s attorney must present enough evidence to satisfy the minds of the jurors that every element of vehicular manslaughter is true. The prosecutor must prove that a person died in a motor vehicle crash, the person charged operated the vehicle that caused the collision, and that the person charged acted recklessly to convict the person on trial for vehicular homicide. 

A conviction of vehicular homicide in Florida is a second-degree felony. Under Florida statutes §775.082, a person convicted of a second-degree felony may receive an incarcerated sentence of up to fifteen years in the state’s prison. However, if the accident that caused death was a hit-and-run crash, then the crime is a first-degree felony and could be punished by up to 30 years in the state’s prison. A person convicted of vehicular homicide could also receive up to fifteen years of probation and as much as a $10,000.00 fine. 

A sentencing judge could follow the sentencing guidelines for vehicular homicide and impose a length of incarceration consistent with the guidelines. The Florida sentencing guidelines assign vehicular homicide as a Level 7 offense. Accordingly, the offender convicted of vehicular homicide must receive no less than nine years and three months incarcerated before release. The judge can give a maximum of up to fifteen years.

The judge has the authority to impose a lesser sentence if the facts of the case warrant a downward departure from the suggested sentencing guideline. A judge can reduce a sentence for want of prior criminal history, good family life, good work history, and good community connections. Essentially, the goal in sentencing for the defense is to get the lowest amount of time in prison if prison must be imposed. Using all of the positive attributes of a person charged with vehicular homicide could convince the judge to impose a more lenient sentence. 

The judge can look at aggravating factors as well when deliberating on the appropriate sentence for the offender. A long criminal history, substance misuse, prior convictions, poor work history, and a life of recidivism could convince the judge to impose a tougher sentence than the guidelines suggest.

A person facing an accusation of vehicular homicide in Florida has defenses available to him or her that could result in an acquittal of the charges, a conviction of a lesser charge, or a reduced sentence, even probation.

The best-case scenario involves one in which the person facing vehicular homicide charges has the case against him or her dismissed. This remedy rarely occurs but it could in some circumstances. Anytime the police commit a constitutional violation against the person charged with a crime, the judge can suppress the evidence from introduction at trial. In some instances, the suppressed evidence might be so critical to the state’s case that suppression of the evidence leads to dismissal because the government has no evidence to go forward with the trial.

Winning an acquittal for the charge of vehicular homicide after the trial is the next best result. One of the methods of poking holes in the government’s case is to show that the police made mistakes in their investigation, and the accumulation of mistakes must leave reasonable doubt that the person charged is guilty of the crime alleged. 

Police officers can make technical mistakes like failing to collect and to preserve certain evidence or failing to conduct their investigation in a manner that could uncover exculpatory evidence which benefits the accused. Law enforcement officers often rush to make judgments about the evidence and make mistakes. Other officers, while well-meaning, are not good investigators. Other investigators could hold a bias against a person who allegedly kills another while driving.

Some law enforcement officers assigned to investigate fatal car crashes, but not all, might begin their investigation with the perception that a crime was committed by one of the drivers. When investigators have a perception bias that all fatal motor vehicle accidents happened because a crime was committed, the officer essentially starts off by assuming the guilt of one of the parties and then works backward. Hopefully, the investigator faithfully and honestly follows all of the evidence to its reasonable conclusion. In some instances, the investigator might believe that no driver involved in the fatal crash engaged in criminal conduct. However, many investigations lead to a person facing charges simply because the investigator looks at all of the evidence to confirm that criminal behavior took place. Interpreting evidence to support a theory of a case is called confirmation bias. Confirmation bias among police officers often results in innocent people facing criminal charges.