Driving is one of the most dangerous things that you do on a daily basis. For those who have been involved in a fatal car accident, it does not need to be the end of the world. The rules for vehicular homicide in New Jersey are very clear as to when they apply – but the prosecution still needs to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt to convict you of a crime.
An experienced criminal defense attorney can be the difference between spending years in prison and walking free. A vehicular homicide charge is extremely serious in New Jersey, and can mean fines, loss of your license, and years in prison. If you have been charged with vehicular homicide in South Jersey, contact the Law Offices of John J. Zarych to get an experienced criminal defense attorney on your side. Call us today at (609) 616-4956.
New Jersey Vehicular Homicide Definition
In New Jersey, vehicular homicide is reckless driving that results in death. Despite the name “homicide,” there does not need to be intentional murder like there does for the typical crime of homicide. Instead, vehicular homicide punishes bad driving choices that result in death.
N.J.S.A. § 2C:11-5 is called “Death by auto or vessel,” and covers vehicular homicide. There are three specific things that are automatically considered “reckless” when driving:
New Jersey law automatically considers falling asleep while driving reckless driving. It also counts driving after 24 hours without sleeping automatic reckless driving.
Driving while intoxicated (DWI) is automatic evidence of reckless driving. It only reaches this level if the drunk or drugged driving violates New Jersey’s DWI statute. That means they need to prove your blood alcohol content was .08% or higher, or that you otherwise showed you were unsafe to drive because of your intoxication. This means the prosecution’s case is still hard, even with the automatic reckless driving inference.
Driving While Using a Cell Phone
The law only counts cell phone use that violates New Jersey’s cell phone driving laws as automatic recklessness. That means that hands-free use of a cell phone does not violate that law and cannot automatically count as reckless driving. Actually using your cell phone with your hands for a call or text does automatically count as reckless, though.
If you were driving recklessly for a reason that was not on this list, it can still count as reckless driving – but the prosecution needs to prove that it was reckless. That means calling police and other witnesses at trial to prove your driving was unsafe.
Any of these listed situations “automatically count” as reckless driving in that they provide an “inference” that the driving was reckless. An inference can always be defeated by evidence to the contrary. For instance, proof that your driving was actually safe should outweigh the inference that the driving was reckless.
The other element of vehicular homicide is that the driving caused death. This can be the death of a pedestrian, another driver, or someone else. As long as the death was caused by the reckless driving, it is vehicular homicide.
Vehicular Manslaughter Penalties
In general, vehicular homicide is a second degree crime in New Jersey, which can mean five to 10 years in prison and up to $150,000 in fines upon conviction. The law also has ways built-in to increase the penalty under certain conditions.
Conviction for vehicular homicide while DWI or while your license is suspended because of a DWI conviction requires that you spend time in prison. N.J.S.A. § 2C:11-5(1) says that, if convicted, “the defendant shall be sentenced to a term of imprisonment,” and that the imprisonment will have a minimum term. That means that there will be a period of your sentence that must be served in prison, and cannot be given probation or parole instead. That period is between 1/3 and 1/2 of the whole term, or three years – whichever is greater. For this minimum term to kick in, there must be a separate hearing at sentencing to prove the facts of the drunk driving by a preponderance of the evidence (a lower standard than trial – but the same as any other standards for sentencing).
If the vehicular manslaughter was because of a DWI or DWI with a breath test refusal, then you can also lose your license for anywhere from five years to life upon conviction.
If a vehicular manslaughter takes place while driving in a school crossing, on school property, or within 1,000 feet of school property, the crime is upgraded to a first degree crime. That means 10-20 years in prison and up to $200,000 in fines. Plus, it is not a defense that you did not know you were in a school zone – the upgrade is automatic.
Speak to a Southern New Jersey Vehicular Manslaughter Defense Attorney
On top of all of these punishments, you also forfeit the car, boat, motorcycle, or other vehicle that was used in the crime.
If you are charged with vehicular manslaughter, the potential prison time is extremely serious, and you should hire a lawyer to help you defeat the charges and stay out of prison. The Law Offices of John J. Zarych has experienced vehicular homicide lawyers located in South Jersey that can help you with your case. For a free, confidential consultation, call us at (609) 616-4956, or contact us online.