Understanding Arizona Vehicular Manslaughter Charges and Penalties

If you have questions about vehicular manslaughter charges, there’s a good chance you’re involved in a very stressful and complicated situation.  In those sorts of circumstances, it’s important to pause, take a breath, and break down the situation to be sure you thoroughly understand every aspect of it.  Vehicular manslaughter is technically a homicide charge, so that’s a good place to start. If you have been charged with vehicular manslaughter, you need to enlist the help of an experienced criminal defense attorney.

Homicide in Arizona

Although the word “homicide” is commonly used interchangeably with “murder,” the two actually have very different meanings.  Homicide is usually defined as any unlawful killing of another person, while murder is a very specific type of homicide.  Arizona law recognizes four types of homicide:

  • Negligent homicide
  • Manslaughter
  • Second degree murder
  • First degree murder

Each offense is different, with negligent homicide being considered the lowest-level homicide, followed by manslaughter, then second and first degree murder.  Consequently, there are different elements the State must prove in order to convict a person of each offense, and each carries different penalties.

For example, a conviction for negligent homicide generally requires the state to prove that one person caused the death of another by unreasonably failing to notice and address obvious risks.  This charge might come about if a child drowns in his neighbor’s pool, and there was no fence around the pool to keep children away.  This type of homicide does NOT require the state to prove that the defendant intended for anyone to die, only that someone died because they failed to exercise appropriate caution.

First degree murder, on the other hand, is the most serious form of homicide in Arizona.  To prove first degree murder, the State has to prove that a person intentionally acted in a way that they knew would cause the death of another person, such as shooting them.  Because this type of homicide is considered “worse” than the others, the penalties are also harsher.  Where negligent homicide is a Class 4 felony, usually punishable by 2.5 years in prison, first degree murder is a Class 1 felony and in Arizona can carry the death penalty.  

Where is Vehicular Manslaughter on the Scale?

Arizona doesn’t differentiate vehicular manslaughter from other types of manslaughter; vehicular manslaughter is simply manslaughter that happens to involve a vehicle.  In Arizona manslaughter is considered to be the next most “serious” homicide charge after negligent homicide, and comes in 5 different types.  “Vehicular manslaughter” charges are almost always brought under the “reckless” category, meaning that to convict a person the State must prove that he or she “recklessly caus[ed] the death of another person.”

In vehicular manslaughter cases, it is usually pretty clear that one person’s vehicle caused the death of another person.  That means cases usually turn on whether or not the court decides the driver was “reckless.”  In Arizona, to prove you were reckless the State will need to show that you knew about and ignored a “substantial and unjustifiable risk” that your actions would cause another person’s death or injury, and that a “reasonable person” would have acted differently in that situation.

What are the penalties for manslaughter in Arizona?

Arizona considers manslaughter to be a Class 2 felony.  That means that in most cases, a person found guilty will be sentenced to 5 years in prison.  However, Arizona law allows some flexibility in sentencing, depending on whether the judge decides there are circumstances that call for an increased or reduced sentence.  Sentences can be reduced to as little as 3 years, or increased to as many as 12.5 years.

The most important thing to know if you’ve been accused of vehicular manslaughter is that you are innocent until proven guilty.  With the help of an experienced criminal defense lawyer, you can show that the risks you took were justifiable, and that you acted as a reasonable person would have.  Our firm’s attorneys have years of experience handling manslaughter cases in Arizona, and are available if you need help.  If you have questions about your vehicular manslaughter charges, call us today to schedule a free legal consultation.