Can someone be charged with manslaughter for speeding?
While my child at least feigns general interest in my work as a criminal defense attorney, two recent stories seem to have struck a chord. We have been actively discussing the Oklahoma Homecoming case and it’s complexities.
The most recent local case involves a young woman in Charlotte charged with a felony in the tragic loss of a friend. Tonight at supper I was peppered with a host of questions:
- Can someone be charged with manslaughter for speeding?
- What is manslaughter?
- Does that mean in your state of mind you meant for something bad to happen?
- Does it matter if you’ve never had a ticket before?
- Do people get arrested?
- What happens if you get convicted?
Despite being a teaching moment, it is honestly difficult explaining some very hard facts-of-life to a teenager in response to media coverage. To be fair though, that’s what we do as attorneys: Explain the law and share difficult truths.
Many, many people do not understand how quickly life can change or how harsh the law can occasionally seem.
I am an attorney actively engaged in helping people with similar cases and therefore have a professional understanding of the legal system and how it works; but, I am also a parent.
My heart ached hearing of the tragedies over the weekend. I hope the materials herein serve as an opportunity for other families to learn and share.
I have seen inconsolable sorrow exhibited well beyond worry over punishment of any Court or jail or prison cell. I have witnessed true, deep remorse coupled with a sense of hopelessness.
I have had clients whom have wanted to kill themselves and whom would gladly trade places with the deceased – Bill Powers
I have listened to grieving families in court share their losses. I have heard them scream and cry. I have seen them bring the ashes of loved ones to court. I have seen deputies restrain parents physically.
I have also seen the families of the accused, the parents, try to get through seeing their child go through the process. Its exceptionally hard on parents; it always is.
I have done my very best to express the depth of sorrow and sincere regret when clients are too broken-up to speak in court. I have been deeply disturbed when listening to testimony and looking at the pictures provided in discovery.
I have had to take a deep breath and steady myself before speaking, because that was the only way to get a sound out.
I have also seen grace and forgiveness, beyond what can be conceived possible or what I could ever hope to personally achieve.
I have seen what was true justice meted out. I have also seen people led away to prison.
Like any parent, I first extend my most sincere condolences to all involved and second pray never to face a similar circumstance.
The difference between an average motorist and tragedy sometimes involves physics more than intent – Bill Powers
For those reasons, it makes sense to discuss the law in North Carolina and to some extent, hopefully explain the logic behind such serious charges.
For the record, I do not presently serve as legal counsel on the referenced matter(s) and because of the ages of those involved, I have purposely not named them or provided a link to the stories.
The information shared herein is general in nature. Without knowing more of the factual basis, one would be well-served in waiting to hear all the facts before forming an opinion.
SEE RELATED: PARENT STUDENT DRIVING CONTRACT
What is Manslaughter?
As one of the first thirteen colonies, many North Carolina laws were historically predicated on the “common law.”
. . .[T]he common law is that body of law and juristic theory which was originated, developed, and formulated and is administered in England, and has obtained among most of the states and peoples of Anglo-Saxon stock. Lux v. Haggin, 69 Cal. 255, 10 Pac. 674. 2
Manslaughter is the act of an unlawful killing of a human being in a way that is less culpable than a degree of murder charge.
Under common law manslaughter was divided into voluntary and involuntary manslaughter:
- Voluntary manslaughter is intentionally killing another person in the heat of passion and in response to adequate provocation
- Involuntary manslaughter is negligently causing the death of another person
What is Manslaughter in North Carolina?
Manslaughter remains a valid charge in North Carolina, despite its basis in common law. Chapter 14-18 of the North Carolina Criminal Statutes references the punishment for the offense, but does not specifically define exactly what the offense is.
That is not to say there are not other reference sources for the law, especially as it pertains the courts, trials and judgments.
The crime of involuntary manslaughter is commonly defined as the unintentional killing of another reasonable person resulting from recklessness or criminal negligence.
SEE RELATED: NORTH CAROLINA INVOLUNTARY MANSLAUGHTER
§ 14-18. Punishment for manslaughter. Voluntary manslaughter shall be punishable as a Class D felony, and involuntary manslaughter shall be punishable as a Class F felony. (4 Hen. VII, s. 13; 1816, c. 918, P.R.; R.C., c. 34, s. 24; 1879, c. 255; Code, s. 1055; Rev., s. 3632; C.S., s. 4201; 1933, c. 249; 1979, c. 760, s. 5; 1979, 2nd Sess., c. 1316, s. 47; 1981, c. 63, s. 1; c. 179, s. 14; 1993, c. 539, s. 112; 1994, Ex. Sess., c. 24, s. 14(c); 1997-443, s. 19.25(q).)
What is Felony Death by Vehicle?
Felony Death by Vehicle is defined by statute as:
(a1) – A person commits the offense of felony death by vehicle if:
- The person unintentionally causes the death of another person by way of bodily harm
- The person was engaged in the offense of impaired driving under G.S. 20-138.1 or G.S. 20-138.2
- The commission of the offense in subdivision (2) of this subsection is the proximate cause of the death
What is Misdemeanor Death by Vehicle?
Section (a2) of the Misdemeanor Death by Vehicle statute specifically excludes Driving While Impaired setting forth:
A person commits the offense of misdemeanor death by vehicle if:
A correlation exists between the “offense” and the “proximate cause of the death.”
There are instances where one might be in violation of N.C.G.S. 20-138.1 and yet the Impaired Driving was not a proximate cause of the fatality. The violation of “any State law or local ordinance applying to the operation or use of a vehicle. . .” can be construed broadly.
Again, is important to review the facts and law of any case prior to deciding upon the most appropriate manner in which to proceed. It also makes sense to speak with an attorney whom is experienced handling such matters.
North Carolina Caselaw
Reckless driving can provide the culpable negligence required for the crimes of involuntary manslaughter or assault with a deadly weapon inflicting serious injury when someone is killed or seriously injured as a result of the defendant’s reckless driving. North Carolina v. Wade
- Such recklessness or carelessness
- Proximately resulting in injury or death
- As imports a thoughtless disregard of consequences
- Or a heedless indifference to the safety and rights of others
The legal definition for culpable negligence has historically been defined, whether or not a defendant is impaired by alcohol, conduct that results in injury or death to another that is so reckless or careless as to constitute a “thoughtless disregard of consequences or a heedless indifference to the safety and rights of others.”
Our Supreme Court has held that “‘[a]n intentional, wilfull or wanton violation of a statute . . ., designed for the protection of human life or limb, which proximately results in injury or death, is culpable negligence.’” State v. McGill, 314 N.C. 633, 637, 336 S.E.2d 90, 92-93 (1985).
Teen Driver Metrics
SEE RELATED: Traffic Safety Numbers for Teens
Bill Powers regularly speaks at schools to students about the laws of North Carolina. He is a member of the North Carolina Governor’s Impaired Driving Task Force and the President Elect of the North Carolina Advocates for Justice NCAJ.
The North Carolina Advocates for Justice is a nonpartisan association of legal professionals dedicated to protecting people’s rights through community, education, and advocacy.
For speaking engagements, please contact Bill at: bill@PowMac.com or 704-342-4357