Have You Been Charged with Vehicular Homicide in Georgia?
Vehicular homicide charges are brought when someone is killed in an auto accident. The death could be a result of the driver's negligent or reckless actions or due to not obeying standard traffic laws. Georgia has two types of vehicular homicide: first degree and second degree.
A person could be charged with felony vehicular homicide in Georgia if it was first-degree or misdemeanor vehicular homicide in Georgia if it was second-degree. No matter what degree you have been charged with, a conviction carries serious consequences. An experienced Georgia Vehicular Homicide Attorney is needed to obtain the best result in your case. Our attorneys have over 50 combined years of criminal defense experience. We thoroughly comprehend the rules surrounding vehicular homicide and will discuss all your options with you. We understand that you may not be responsible for the accident or that you were not impaired. There is hope for your case, and we are prepared to help.
Felony Vehicular Homicide in Georgia
First-degree vehicular homicide is considered a felony conviction in Georgia. It generally indicates the person was also driving under the influence or committed one of the other serious driving offenses that support the felony. All other traffic violation cases resulting in death should be prosecuted as misdemeanor vehicular homicide, or second-degree.
O.C.G.A. § 40-6-393(a) and (b) states that a person commits homicide by vehicle in the first degree when:
Without malice aforethought, a person causes the death of another by
- overtaking and passing a school bus (O.C.G.A. § 40-6-163);
- reckless driving (O.C.G.A. § 40-6-390);
- driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs (O.C.G.A. § 40-6-391);
- fleeing or attempting to elude a police officer (O.C.G.A. § 40-6-395), or
- hit and run. (O.C.G.A. § 40-6-270).
It is important to note that felony vehicular homicide can be proven by either DUI per se or DUI less safe. In any of the above situations, the penalty is a prison term between three and fifteen years.
In addition to committing one of the five offenses listed above, a person can also be guilty of felony vehicular homicide in Georgia if they have been declared a habitual violator. O.C.G.A. § 40-6-393(d) In Georgia, a “habitual violator” is an individual who has been convicted of three or more serious traffic-related crimes within a five years. Qualifying traffic offenses include DUI, reckless driving, hit and run, fleeing or attempting to elude a police officer, and vehicular homicide.
A person who is a habitual violator and commits homicide by vehicle in the first degree will be guilty of a felony and will be punished by a prison term between five and twenty years.
Misdemeanor Vehicular Homicide in Georgia
Other than the five serious “predicate” driving offenses outlined for felony vehicular homicide, all other simple misdemeanor traffic offenses will result in misdemeanor vehicular homicide. This distinction is significant as it relates to incarceration time.
O.C.G.A. § 40-6-393(c) states,
Any person who causes the death of another person, without an intention to do so, by violating any provision of this title other than unlawfully passing a school bus, reckless driving, DUI, fleeing or attempting to elude a police officer, and hit and run commits the offense of homicide by vehicle in the second degree when such violation is the cause of said death and, upon conviction thereof, shall be punished as a misdemeanor.
Second-degree vehicular homicide in Georgia consists of unintentionally causing the death of another through the commission of general traffic offenses, such as speeding or failing to maintain a lane. Lyons v. State, 248 Ga. App. 59, (2001).
In a case for running a red light and homicide by vehicle in the second degree, the State was not required to prove that defendant specifically intended to drive through the red light or even that he knew light was red; offenses were traffic safety offenses and, as such, involved strict liability. Hoffer v. State, 192 Ga. App. 378, (1989).
Some common traffic offenses that could give way to misdemeanor vehicular homicide in Georgia are:
- running a red light
- failing to yield at a right of way
- Driving too fast for conditions
- Distracted driving
- Failure to maintain lane
- Failure to stop at a stop sign
Georgia Case Law
A person was convicted of homicide by vehicle in the first degree in Moceri v. State. A police officer attempted to stop the defendant's car after observing them speeding and drifting from side to side within their traffic lane. When the officer activated his signal, the defendant accelerated away, failed to negotiate a sharp curve, crashed, and killed his passenger. The defendant was taken to the hospital where a blood test showed that his blood alcohol level was .059 which was below the legal limit of .08. The entire sequence of events was captured on the officer's video camera and played for the jury. Therefore, the jury found the defendant guilty of first-degree vehicular homicide based on evidence that he caused the death of the passenger in the car he was driving when he crashed the vehicle while fleeing and attempting to elude a pursuing police officer in violation of O.C.G.A. § 40-6-395(a). 338 Ga. App. 329, (2016).
A person can also be convicted of felony vehicular homicide when driving under the influence. The accused, Colon Louis Hartzler, was driving his Jeep on Georgia 400. The Jeep did not have any doors on the vehicle, and the passenger was not wearing a seat belt. Witnesses observed Hartzler take a sharp left turn where the passenger was thrown from the car onto the highway. Hartzler stopped and walked towards the passenger but he was struck by a minivan, and the passenger was also hit. The passenger died. During the trial, Hartzler argued that there was insufficient evidence that his actions were the legal or proximate cause of the death. He claimed that the victim not wearing a seat belt, the jeep having no doors, and the victim's intoxication were significant intervening causes. However, witnesses testified that Hartzler's driving was “faster than normal and careless” and that they smelled a strong odor of alcohol coming from Hartzler. This coupled with the fact that Hartzler's blood alcohol content was .19 at the hospital played a substantial part in her death, and the court found that the passenger's death was a reasonably probable consequence of his actions. Hartzler v. State, 332 Ga. App. 674, (2015).
A man was convicted of two counts of second-degree vehicular homicide in the case of Brown v. State. The evidence showed that Brown was traveling westbound on Interstate 20. Brown failed to maintain her lane and struck the side of a vehicle that was traveling in the middle lane. Upon impact, Brown's car went back and forth across lanes and she hit the rear of the victim's car. As a result of the collision, the victim's vehicle spun out of control, and they were ejected from their vehicle and died as a result of the accident. The court found that Brown unintentionally caused the victim's death by failing to maintain her lane in violation of O.C.G.A. §40-6-48(1). Therefore, she was convicted of second-degree vehicular homicide. Brown v. State, 294 Ga. App. 535, (2008).
The Penalty for Vehicular Homicide in Georgia
Vehicular homicide can be charged as a misdemeanor or a felony depending on the circumstances. For first degree homicide, a person will be charged with felony vehicular homicide in Georgia. The punishment is a prison term between three and fifteen years. The misdemeanor vehicular homicide punishment in Georgia is a maximum of one year in jail, up to $1,000 in fines or both.
A person convicted of vehicular homicide may also face a civil suit brought by the victim's family. The judge could award damages such as pain and suffering or loss of company to the victim's family. This would be in addition to the penalties set out by a judge in the criminal case.
The consequences of a felony conviction extend beyond prison and fines. It can make everyday life difficult. Having a felony on your record can make it difficult to obtain housing, credit, or employment.
Lastly, a conviction for either felony or misdemeanor vehicular homicide in Georgia will cause a driver's license suspension. For misdemeanor vehicular homicide in Georgia, 12 months is the maximum license suspension. However, a felony vehicular homicide charge in Georgia comes with a three-year license suspension.
Defenses to a Vehicular Homicide Charge in Georgia
There are numerous defenses your Georgia Vehicular Homicide Attorney can use to defend your case. Just because a death occurred does not mean you are responsible. In cases where the underlying charge was a DUI, the State is required to prove the DUI charge beyond a reasonable doubt. If there was insufficient evidence to demonstrate the accused was guilty of a DUI, then they cannot be guilty of vehicular homicide in the first degree.
Another possible defense is a lack of causation. The statute requires that the State establish a causal connection between the accused's violation of one of the statute's and the victim's death. This requires a showing that the defendant's conduct was the legal or proximate cause of the victim's death. In other words, there needs to be a direct link between the accused's driving and the death.
In addition to defenses, our vehicular homicide lawyers in Georgia have been successful in negotiating a reduction of a felony charge to a misdemeanor vehicular homicide charge. Prosecutors have a large amount of discretion in the treatment of your charges, and we have decades of experience negotiating with them to achieve a reduced charge.
What are Not Defenses to Vehicular Homicide in Georgia
While countless arguments can be made on your behalf, there are some that the Court has refused to accept over the years.
The first argument we frequently hear is that the other driver was also at fault. The State looks at whether their actions contributed to the death or accident. If the evidence supports a finding that they are not fault, they no crime has occurred.
Another frequently heard statement is that the driver was not acting maliciously or with intent to kill someone. Georgia law does not require that there was malice or an intent to kill someone. The statutes specify that “without malice aforethought” which means that the accused does not have to intend to kill someone beforehand. A person can be convicted if they violated one of the traffic laws whether or not they violated it maliciously.
Our Georgia Vehicular Homicide Lawyers are prepared to represent you at every stage in the criminal process. We frequently consult with expert witnesses that can reconstruct the accident to demonstrate what may have happened. We are also experts in field sobriety, blood testing, and breathalyzer analyses and can uncover the inaccuracies of the chemical testing performed. Take the first steps to avoid prison time and a license suspension by calling us now a free case evaluation. We are open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to answer your call.