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Dealing With DUI Charges: What if Someone Dies in a DUI Accident?

April 15, 2022 | Posted In Drunk Driving |

When you get arrested for driving under the influence (DUI) in New Jersey, there are various aggravating factors that can increase the severity of your case. One of these factors is causing a fatal accident. If you cause a fatal accident while driving under the influence in New Jersey, you can be charged with vehicular homicide, and you can face years or decades of imprisonment (among other penalties).

Death By Auto: Vehicular Homicide Under N.J.S.A. Section 2C:11-5

New Jersey’s vehicular homicide statute is labeled, “Death by auto or vessel.” Under this statute, N.J.S.A. Section 2C:11-5, the crime of vehicular homicide is defined as causing the death of another human being by driving recklessly. Crucially, Section 2C:11-5 states:

“Proof that the defendant was driving while intoxicated in violation of [New Jersey’s DUI statute]. . . shall give rise to an inference that the defendant was driving recklessly.”

This “inference” means that if prosecutors are able to prove that you were driving under the influence, it is then up to you to prove that your impairment wasn’t a factor in the accident that led to someone else’s death.

Defending Against a DUI-Related Vehicular Homicide Charge

As a result, if you are facing a vehicular homicide charge following a DUI arrest in New Jersey, it is critical that you hire an experienced New Jersey DUI lawyer to defend you. There are several potential defenses to allegations of driving under the influence, but you will need to work closely with your lawyer to determine which defenses you can use based on the facts of your case.

In some cases, it will be possible to fight a DUI-related vehicular homicide charge by challenging the prosecution’s evidence of your intoxication or impairment. But, it is important to keep in mind that New Jersey law allows prosecutors to pursue DUI-related charges based on evidence that a person was either (i) “operat[ing] a motor vehicle while under the influence of intoxicating [alcohol or drugs],” or (ii) “operat[ing] a motor vehicle with a blood alcohol concentration [BAC] of 0.08% or more.” So, if you took the breathalyzer and blew above the legal limit, your defense strategy may need to focus on challenging the validity of your test result. But, even if you refused the breathalyzer, prosecutors may still be able to secure a conviction based on the arresting officer’s testimony that you appeared to be under the influence at the crash site.

What if there is no question you were driving drunk? Even if you caused a fatal accident while you were driving under the influence, you could still have defenses available. There are ways a New Jersey DUI lawyer can help you even if you are guilty, and if the state’s evidence is insufficient or inadmissible, prosecutors may not be able to prove your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

Defending Against Other Allegations of Reckless Driving

When defending against a vehicular homicide charge, it is important not to focus solely on the prosecution’s DUI-related evidence. While driving under the influence is one form of reckless driving, it is not the only form of reckless driving that can justify a vehicular homicide conviction.

For example, when defending against your vehicular homicide charge, you wouldn’t want to say, “I may have been going well above the speed limit, but I wasn’t drunk.” Why? Because excessive speeding is also a form of reckless driving under New Jersey law. Section 39:4-96 of the New Jersey Statutes defines reckless driving as driving, “heedlessly, in willful or wanton disregard of the rights or safety of others, in a manner so as to endanger, or be likely to endanger, a person or property.” Speeding excessively, running red lights, driving while distracted, and falling asleep behind the wheel can all support vehicular homicide charges in addition to (or instead of) driving under the influence.

Penalties for DUI-Related Vehicular Homicide in New Jersey

The penalties for causing a fatal accident while driving under the influence depend on the circumstances involved. In most cases, vehicular homicide is a second-degree indictable offense. This means that a conviction can result in between 5 and 10 years of prison time and a $150,000 fine.

In some cases, vehicular homicide involving DUI can be prosecuted as a first-degree crime. Specifically, prosecutors can pursue first-degree charges when a DUI-related fatal auto accident occurs:

  • On school property,
  • Within 1,000 feet of school property, or
  • In a school crossing.

When prosecuted as a first-degree indictable offense, vehicular homicide involving DUI carries between 10 and 20 years in prison and up to a $200,000 fine. In both first-degree and second-degree cases, Section 2C:11-5.b.(4) also provides for a driver’s license suspension “of between five years and life,” with the suspension period beginning the day you are released from prison.  

Under Section 2C:11-5.b.(1), New Jersey judges are required to impose prison time in the event of a DUI-related vehicular homicide conviction. Judges must also impose a minimum term of incarceration during which the defendant is ineligible for parole. This minimum term must be between “one-third and one-half of the sentence imposed by the court or three years, whichever is greater.”

Implications for Wrongful Death Claims

In many cases, the families of victims killed in DUI-related auto accidents will file lawsuits for wrongful death. Generally speaking, a guilty plea can serve as evidence of liability in a related civil lawsuit. However, Section 2C:11-5.c. provides that, “[f]or good cause shown, the court may, in accepting a plea of guilty under this section, order that such plea not be evidential in any civil proceeding.” If pleading guilty is in your best interests, your New Jersey DUI lawyer can seek to prevent your plea from being used against you should the victim’s family go to court.

Discuss Your Case with an Experienced New Jersey DUI Lawyer in Confidence

Are you facing a vehicular homicide charge involving allegations of drunk driving? If so, it is important that you speak with an experienced New Jersey DUI lawyer as soon as possible. To schedule a confidential consultation at Helmer, Conley & Kasselman, P.A., call 877-435-6371 or tell us how we can reach you online now.

 

Over 20 attorneys at HCK have extensive experience in defending criminal cases as they were former assistant prosecutors and/or police officers for a combined total of over 600 years of law enforcement experience. You can find out more about them on our site, and you can call Managing Partner Ron Helmer on his cell phone at 609 685-0665.

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