Vehicular Homicide and the Impaired Driver
Fiction: An impaired driver who kills someone cannot be charged with murder.
Fact: The only difference between a vehicular homicide and other homicides is the use of a motor vehicle as a weapon, as opposed to a gun or knife. This does not change in any way the elements required to be proved for murder. As long as the elements for murder can be proved, a vehicular homicide defendant can be tried for murder just like someone who uses a gun.
Fiction: A motor vehicle is not a deadly weapon, like a gun.
Fact: A motor vehicles purpose is to transport people from one place to another. However, under the right circumstances, motor vehicles become as deadly, if not deadlier, than guns. The latest statistics show that almost twice the number of people die in vehicle crashes per year than by all other forms of homicide combined. And more people are killed in alcohol-related crashes per year than are killed by firearms. Courts across the country do not equate motor vehicles with guns if used as they are intended to be used. But if the operator intends to use the vehicle as a weapon, then motor vehicles and guns are equally effective weapons.
Fiction: Impaired drivers can use the excuse that they were too drunk to know what they were doing.
Fact: Impairment due to alcohol or other drugs is never a complete defense for any crime. But it can be used as a partial defense. This occurs if the defendant is charged with murder or voluntary manslaughter and the defendants impairment level is so high that it affects the defendants intent to kill. When this happens, murder and voluntary manslaughter are only mitigated to a lesser crime, like involuntary manslaughter or criminally negligent homicide. However, this is a rare occurrence and no court has ever established an impairment level at which this happens.
Fiction: If my state has already enacted a vehicular homicide statute, an impaired driver who kills cannot be charged with murder or manslaughter.
Fact: Vehicular homicide statutes were enacted so prosecutors could avoid the obstacles they faced in using murder and manslaughter statutes to prosecute vehicular fatalities (i.e., convincing jurors that a vehicle is just as much a weapon as a gun and that an impaired defendant may be just as guilty as a sober defendant). However, no court has ever found that when state legislatures enacted vehicular homicide statutes, they also prohibited the use of the more traditional murder and manslaughter statutes.
Fiction: An impaired driver never intends to kill anyone, and without this intent to kill, the driver cannot be convicted of murder.
Fact: While it is true that few impaired drivers who kill begin their evenings looking to do so, their actions throughout the evening can be so egregious that the law implies an intent to kill. Once that implied intent to kill is established, any impaired driver who kills can be convicted of second degree murder.
Fiction: Capital punishment is a sentencing option in my state, but impaired drivers cannot get the death penalty.
Fact: It is rare that an impaired driver who kills is charged with first degree murder. It is even rarer that an impaired driver who kills is charged with capital murder. However, two states, North Carolina and Kentucky, have charged impaired drivers with capital murder. These states have not created any new law; they have simply used the existing capital murder law and applied that law to the facts of the vehicular homicide. If a vehicular homicide case meets all of the statutory criteria for capital murder, there is no reason the case cannot be charged as such.