In Florida, vehicular manslaughter cases are very serious. That seems obvious, but states and counties treat these crimes differently depending on how prosecutors’ offices and judges view them. Vehicular homicide often involves a defendant who did not intend to commit a crime and has never been in trouble before doing something with the most tragic results. Some places view this as worthy of probation. Others view it as worthy of long prison sentences. In Jacksonville, Florida, they are most often viewed in the latter manner and come with significant prison sentences.
Most vehicular homicide cases involve a person who causes a crash that results in death while being impaired from alcohol or drugs. In that case, the police officer will investigate the driver at the scene, do field sobriety exercises if practicable, request a breathalyzer test after the arrest at the jail or request that blood be drawn for testing if the driver goes to the hospital.
However, the state can charge a person with vehicular homicide even if no drugs or alcohol was involved with the crash. The law in Florida distinguishes accidents involving negligence from those involving reckless driving. Negligence cases normally involve a driver violating one or two traffic laws resulting in a crash. For example, if a person was speeding, ran a red light or pulled out in front of another vehicle and caused a deadly crash, that is likely to be considered negligence. Negligent conduct results in traffic tickets and lawsuits but not criminal charges. If a person’s driving goes beyond that kind of negligence and is particularly egregious, it can be considered reckless. For instance, driving 65 miles per hour in a 45 miles per hour zone and causing a crash is probably going to be considered negligence given how common speeding is. However, driving 85 mph erratically in a 45 mph zone in the rain certainly comes closer to recklessness and criminal behavior. Ultimately, the police decide if it is sufficient for an arrest, the prosecutor decides if it is sufficient to file criminal charges and a judge or jury decides if the defendant is in fact guilty of the crime.
In a vehicular homicide case near Jacksonville, Florida, a woman drove off the side of the road at a high rate of speed and hit a tree, killing her passenger. She was charged with vehicular homicide and convicted at trial. The criminal defense attorney appealed because it appeared the only evidence that she was reckless was her speed. There was no evidence that she was drunk or impaired from drugs. A accident reconstructionist for the state examined the evidence of the crash including the skid marks and gave the opinion that the driver was traveling at approximately 80 miles per hour in a 65 miles per hour zone. There was no other evidence of improper driving.
The vehicular homicide conviction was reversed. Reckless driving requires the driver to knowingly drive in a manner that is likely to cause death or serious bodily injury. That does not mean the state has to prove the driver intended to cause a crash or kill someone. The state must prove the driver intended to do something so dangerous that a deadly crash was likely. Intentionally drinking a lot of alcohol and driving or intentionally driving 100 mph in a 45 mph zone in the rain or in a residential areas with kids playing would likely qualify.
In this case, the court determined as a matter of law that speeding alone, especially when the speed was not too excessive, was not reckless. As a result, the state could not sustain a conviction for vehicular homicide without evidence of other reckless conduct.