Manslaughter: When a DUI Accident Results in a Homicide Charge
Homicide is a legal term that refers to the killing of a human by another human. In Oklahoma, homicide is classified in many different ways that depend on the circumstances surrounding the death—ranging from murder in the first degree (most severe) to second degree manslaughter (least severe). In other words, you won’t automatically face a murder charge if your actions lead to the death of another individual. Accidental deaths can also be criminally classified as homicides using a manslaughter charge.
How is manslaughter different from murder?
Murder, as most people know, involves an element of intent. When you are charged with murder, you are charged with killing a person on purpose. However, accidental deaths don’t fall within the category of murder. In the circumstance where the State believes that criminal charges are necessary and the death was accidental, manslaughter is utilized.
Even within the charge of manslaughter, there are degrees distinguishing the levels of the crime. Like murder, manslaughter has a first and second degree.
First-Degree Manslaughter for DUI-Related Death
There are a few ways the State can prove you committed manslaughter in the first degree. The first, and most common, method is to prove you killed someone while committing a misdemeanor. Typically, driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol (DUI) is a misdemeanor for your initial offense. If you are driving under the influence of alcohol and an accident occurs that results in the death of another person, your charge will be escalated from a misdemeanor to manslaughter in the first degree.
Another way the State can prove manslaughter in the first degree is if you utilized an unnecessary amount of force to prevent a crime from being committed against you. This is a more complicated charge. Stand your ground laws permit you to use deadly force to protect yourself and your home from certain criminal activity, but not all criminal activity. Determining which type of criminal activity would permit the use of deadly force is a complicated legal matter handled on a case-by-case basis in the courts. Typically, the rule of thumb is that deadly force is only permitted if you felt that your life was in danger.
The third way the State can prove first-degree manslaughter is when a death occurs in the heat of passion, but the circumstances do not rise to the level of murder. This is often a fact based analysis, but one example is when a parent kills a person who physically harmed their child after immediately seeing their hurt child. This method is complicated and is determined on a case-by-case basis.
The statute for first-degree manslaughter does not include a maximum punishment. However, it does require a minimum of 4 years in the Department of Corrections. Like with all other cases, the State can choose to give you a suspended sentence rather than actual jail time. However, this will depend on the facts of your case as well as your criminal history.
Unlike with second-degree manslaughter, the first degree is an “85% crime.” This means you must serve at least 85% of your prison sentence, and it limits your expungement abilities (most 85% crimes cannot be expunged).
Second-degree manslaughter is, in essence, a catch-all charge for when a person dies, but the facts do not meet the necessary elements of a murder or a first-degree manslaughter charge.
One example of manslaughter in the second degree is when you are responsible for a car accident that leads to the death of another, but does NOT involve a DUI. This is often an accident resulting from speeding, texting and driving, or some other slight traffic offense that leads to a serious accident and death.
Second-degree manslaughter is usually charged when there was no intent to commit a crime, and the statute reflects that within its punishment. While other forms of homicide have fairly strict punishments with large maximums, the maximum penalty for second-degree manslaughter is 4 years in prison and a fine of up to $1,000.
If you are charged with second-degree manslaughter and it is factually evident that the death happened due to a terrible accident with minimal negligence on your part, you can be offered probation. Additionally, second-degree manslaughter is NOT an 85% crime.
You have probably heard the term “vehicular manslaughter” used in conversation or on TV. This term is often used to describe a DUI accident that results in a death. What’s the difference between vehicular manslaughter and first-degree manslaughter? There isn’t one. These are simply two different phrasings for the same charge.
Second-Degree Murder for a DUI-Related Death
Second-degree murder is defined as a death that results during the commission of a felony. If you have already been convicted of a DUI within the past 10 years, and an individual dies as a result of you driving under the influence, you can be charged with second-degree murder instead of first-degree manslaughter. This is because a DUI in Oklahoma is a predicate offense—your punishment increases with subsequent charges. (Note: This is different from the Oklahoma felony murder statute that can lead to a first-degree murder charge, because that statute explicitly does not include DUI-related accidents.)
The punishment for second-degree murder is far more serious than for manslaughter charges: minimum of 10 years in prison and maximum life sentence. Additionally, it is an 85% crime. Like with other types of charges, the State can suspend your sentence, but this would be highly unusual and you should anticipate serving a significant amount of time in prison.
The Bottom Line
Manslaughter cases are very fact specific and have varying degrees. If you have been charged with manslaughter and are looking for an attorney who understands the legal system, give us a call for a free consultation.