What are the criminal charges—and penalties—for killing another person while driving drunk?

The penalties for killing someone while driving drunk are quite severe, and vary by state law.

The penalties for killing someone while driving drunk are quite severe. Typically, a motorist who's convicted of a DUI-related (or BUI-related (boating under the influence)) killing is looking at felony charges that carry jail or prison time, fines, and license suspension or revocation.

What Charges Will You Face? 

Generally, a motorist who causes the death of another person while driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol faces felony charges. However, states differ on how DUI-related killings are charged. In many cases, the prosecutor will have several options.

DUI enhancements. Some states have DUI statutes that specify more severe penalties for DUI offenses involving deaths. In Michigan, for instance, a standard first OWI (operating while intoxicated) is a misdemeanor and carries up to 93 days in jail and a maximum $500 in fines. But a Michigan OWI offender who causes the death of another person is guilty of a felony and faces up to 15 years in prison and $2,500 to $10,000 in fines. (Read more about Michigan's vehicular homicide laws.)

Vehicular homicide and vehicular manslaughter. Lots of states have laws that are specific to driving-related unlawful killings. For example, in Florida, a motorist can be convicted of "vehicular homicide" for causing the death of another while driving in a "reckless manner." The vehicular homicide statute applies to all killings that result from driving in a reckless manner—not just those that involve driver intoxication. Generally, a Florida vehicular homicide conviction is a second-degree felony and carries up to 15 years in prison and a maximum $10,000 in fines. Florida law also provides a DUI enhancement that makes a DUI-related killing a second- or first-degree felony. So, for DUI-related killings, Florida prosecutors can choose whether to charge vehicular homicide, the DUI-death enhancement, or both. (Get more details about Florida's vehicular homicide laws.)

California, on the other hand, doesn’t have a DUI-death enhancement (unless multiple victims were killed or injured) but does have vehicular manslaughter laws specific to DUI-related offenses. A California DUI offender who—with negligence or gross negligence—violates a traffic law or does a lawful act which might produce death in an unlawful manner and kills another person can be charged with “negligent vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated” or “gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated.” Depending on the circumstances, a convicted motorist faces four years to life in prison. (Read about California’s vehicular manslaughter laws and the consequences of a conviction.)

Manslaughter and murder. Even if a state has laws that specifically apply to driving- or DUI-related killings, someone who kills another while driving under the influence can typically be convicted of a more general crime—like involuntary manslaughter or second-degree murder.

(Find out about the vehicular homicide and manslaughter laws in your state.)

Talk to an Attorney

The consequences of a DUI-related killing are serious. If you’ve been arrested for a DUI offense where someone died, get in contact with an experienced defense attorney right away. A qualified lawyer can let you know what your options are and help you decide on how best to handle your situation.

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