What is Vehicular Manslaughter in Florida?

Whenever a motorist dies in an auto accident in Florida, the investigating law enforcement agencies, together with the state’s attorney’s office with jurisdiction over the accident, must decide whether charges should issue against any of the drivers, assuming they survived the crash. Sometimes the decision is easy because the facts of the crash and the culpability of the driver are clear. However, the investigators and prosecutors face many decisions about whether the driver should be charged at all, or if so, what is the appropriate charge to issue. 

In Florida, law enforcement officers have three options when choosing the correct charge regarding a motor vehicle accident. Investigators can charge the driver with manslaughter by culpable negligence, DUI manslaughter if the facts of the collision suggest the surviving driver was impaired, or vehicular homicide. All three charges have similar elements, or components, that the state must prove but differ in the degree of culpability of the driver. The penalties for each crime differ because the unlawful conduct of the driver justifying the charge is more or less egregious, depending on the nature of the charges and the facts alleged.

Understanding the difference in proof between probable cause to arrest and conviction of a criminal charge is vital. Bearing those distinctions in mind helps keep the vehicular manslaughter charges in the proper context. Most people conflate the two processes, but the differing standards of proof distinguish one from the other. 

In Florida, law enforcement officers must possess sufficient evidence amounting to probable cause to make an arrest or bring a criminal charge against someone. Probable cause is low on the continuum of proofs required in a criminal case. Probable cause only means that the police have an objective reason to believe the person under investigation probably committed the crime. Therefore, police and prosecutors take out the most serious charges against a person for which law enforcement possesses probable cause. Sustaining the burden of proof at trial is something entirely different.

At trial, the state, represented by the prosecutor’s office, must satisfy the burden of proof to win a conviction. The burden of proof in a Florida criminal case is probably familiar to most people. The government has the burden to prove each and every element of each charge beyond a reasonable doubt. There is no higher standard of proof in the law. Beyond a reasonable doubt is not quite absolute truth but is a standard that appeals to the moral sensibilities of the jurors who, after deliberation, can say that the charge is true. If the jury has in its mind a reasonable doubt, then the law requires them to find in favor of the defendant. If any doubt remains, or the doubt is unreasonable, then the government has met its burden and the jury is morally obligated to convict.

Manslaughter by culpable negligence under Florida Statutes §782.07 is a second-degree felony. The statute specifically obligates the state to prove that a driver was culpably negligent in sustaining a conviction under this charge. The statute does not define culpable negligence. Notwithstanding, the phrase culpable negligence implies that the driver’s conduct must be more egregious than the civil standard of negligence used to prove liability under Florida tort law, but less egregious than intentional conduct. Indeed, an intentional killing of another absent legal justification is murder.

Culpable negligence may be best described as a driver’s complete indifference to the fragility of human life. Culpable negligence is shown by a driver’s conscious and gross disregard for human safety, or utter indifference to the consequences of a person’s actions. In other words, the person intends to commit the act but, by committing the act itself, shows that the person could not care less about what happens to anyone else. 

The conduct required to prove vehicular homicide in Florida differs from that of culpable manslaughter. Under §782.071 of the Florida statutes, a person is guilty of vehicular homicide when the operator of the vehicle drove recklessly and killed another. The older versions of this section punished vehicular homicide as a third-degree felony. However, the most recent amendment to the statute indicates that vehicular homicide is also a second-degree felony. In Florida, a person convicted of a second-degree felony may be punished by a term of years in the state penitentiary not to exceed fifteen years of incarceration under §775.082.

DUI manslaughter is a separate crime from manslaughter by culpable negligence and vehicular homicide. A charge that involves DUI manslaughter requires proof that the driver was somehow impaired by alcohol, drugs, or both. The prosecution only needs to prove that the driver was negligent. Recklessness or willful disregard for another’s life need not be proven to obtain a conviction for DUI manslaughter. Therefore, the driver facing a DUI manslaughter charge could face up to fifteen years in prison for a second-degree felony under Florida statutes §316.193 if the driver merely defaulted on a duty of care owed to another person on the road while intoxicated. 

Every criminal case has a defense, and vehicular manslaughter cases are no different even if the evidence against the accused is overwhelming. The actions of the police can always be challenged to see if they passed constitutional muster. Constitutional challenges to police actions may result in a judge throwing damning evidence out of court. For instance, an unlawful search and seizure of evidence could force a judge to suppress from use at trial the unlawfully suppressed evidence as well as any evidence that flows from the seized evidence. For example, if a judge suppressed the seizure of a cell phone by police because they did not have probable cause to take it, then the prosecution cannot use any information at trial the police obtained directly from the phone, such as text message information. 

Fighting the charges at trial is another viable defense strategy. Sometimes the best-case scenario involves the defense arguing that the defendant was merely speeding and not driving recklessly when the crash happened, or that the victim’s driving actually caused the crash. Those lines of argument could ultimately win an acquittal or result in a conviction but for a less-serious offense. Finally, arguing for a reduced sentence is another viable defense. The facts of the case, the defendant’s lack of criminal history, positive family history, positive work history, and other factors could convince the sentencing judge to depart downward from the sentencing guidelines.