In Florida, most manslaughter charges involving auto crashes involve allegations that the defendant was driving the vehicle while impaired from alcohol and/or drugs and caused an accident that resulted in the death of another person. That crime is commonly referred to as DUI manslaughter. However, a person can be charged with vehicular manslaughter when he/she was completely sober if he/she was driving recklessly and caused a crash that resulted in a death.
In order to prove a case of vehicular manslaughter, the state must prove that the defendant was driving recklessly. The legal definition for reckless driving is driving with a willful or wanton disregard for the safety of other persons or property. Another way to describe it could be knowingly driving with a conscious indifference to the consequences and with knowledge that the driver’s actions is likely to result in injury to another person or damage to property. The bottom line is that these words do not mean much, and recklessness is determined by the initial police officer who makes the arrest, the prosecutor who decides to file the charges, the judge if the defendant files a motion to dismiss and ultimately a jury if the case goes all the way to a trial.
It is pretty clear that regular negligent driving is not sufficient for a vehicular manslaughter charge. Examples of mere negligent driving would include: running a red light, routine speeding, switching lanes without checking the mirrors and the fairly normal traffic violations people commit every day. It is when some of those improper actions are combined or the driving becomes particularly egregious that the line between non-criminal negligent driving and criminal reckless driving can be difficult to determine.
In a recent case of vehicular manslaughter near Jacksonville, Florida, the driver left the roadway, drove onto the sidewalk for some distance and struck a sign that forced the vehicle over a median and into another vehicle causing a death. The driver had drugs in her system, but the state could not prove when she took the drugs or if the drugs had any effect on her at the time of the crash. As a result, the state relied on her driving to allege it was reckless and sufficient for a vehicular manslaughter charge.
The case was ultimately thrown out. The state was not able to prove that the driver willfully and purposely drove in such a way that she knew an injury or property damage would likely result. She was clearly negligent in leaving the roadway but without further evidence of why she left the road and how she was driving just prior to leaving the road, her actions were merely negligent and could not be the basis for a vehicular manslaughter charge.