Vehicular Homicide vs. Manslaughter: Differences in Washington State 

Understanding the differences between vehicular homicide vs. manslaughter charges in Washington State can help you prepare the proper defense in your case. The government may bring vehicular homicide charges against someone if a person dies within three years after a crash involving a DUI, reckless driving, or unsafe operation of a vehicle. These charges are usually class A felonies that can carry steep penalties such as a life sentence and fines of up to $50,000 or more. Manslaughter charges can be class A or B felonies and stem from someone passing away because of criminal negligence or recklessness. Regardless of whether you face manslaughter or vehicular homicide charges, it’s essential for you to properly defend yourself against the claims and protect your legal rights. 

Veitch Ault Defense is a criminal defense firm providing premier legal representation to those facing criminal charges such as vehicular homicide, reckless driving, and DUI/DWI. Our Bellevue criminal defense lawyers understand the confusion and frustration people encounter when they receive criminal charges. We help people understand the accusations against them and how to fight back. We leave no stone unturned when preparing and presenting legal arguments to help our clients mount a solid defense and get their lives back.  

Vehicular Homicide vs. Manslaughter: What Are the Differences?

Vehicular homicide and manslaughter both involve someone unintentionally causing a person’s death. But vehicular homicide solely consists of the use of a car, while manslaughter can but does not have to. Vehicular homicide is sometimes called vehicular manslaughter, but Washington law categorizes vehicular homicide and manslaughter differently. 

Vehicular Homicide

Washington law has a broad definition of vehicular homicide that includes when someone dies because of a car accident that occurred within three years, and the crash involved one of the following:

  • The driver was under the influence of drugs or alcohol
  • The driver was driving recklessly
  • The driver wasn’t valuing others’ safety when they were driving

Washington law defines reckless driving as when someone drives in a very unsafe manner that disregards the safety of others. For example, excessive speeding or exaggerated swerving might count as reckless driving. The same behavior might qualify as all three of the above. For instance, if someone drives while intoxicated, they might be guilty of a DUI, reckless driving, and operating a vehicle in a way that doesn’t prioritize the safety of others. 

It’s important to note that someone can be charged with vehicular homicide if they cause an accident and someone dies within three years after the crash. That means if the prosecution can prove that the collision is the likely cause of death, the driver might face a vehicular homicide charge years after the wreck. 


Washington law has two types of manslaughter charges: first-degree manslaughter and second-degree manslaughter. Someone commits first-degree manslaughter if they cause someone’s death because of reckless actions or purposefully kill an unborn baby by harming its pregnant mother. Reckless behavior usually includes activities that show a disregard for the safety and health of others. For example, waving a loaded gun around with your finger on the trigger (even if you don’t intend to harm anyone) may constitute reckless behavior because of the risk of the gun going off and hurting or killing someone. 

Someone commits second-degree manslaughter if a person dies because of the other person’s criminal negligence. Washington law defines criminal negligence as when someone isn’t aware of the severe risks associated with their behavior, but a reasonable person would have been. An example of criminal negligence might be putting coins on a railroad track or removing construction signs. 

What Are the Elements of Vehicular Homicide in Washington State?

The prosecution needs to prove the following facts to show that someone is guilty of vehicular homicide:

  • Someone died within three years after getting into a car accident with the accused.
  • The accident was the proximate cause of their death.
  • The accused was driving (a) in a reckless manner, (b) while under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or (c) while disregarding the safety of others. 

Often, the biggest hurdle for the prosecution is showing a connection between the injuries experienced by the victim in the prior crash and the reason they died. They might accomplish this by presenting medical testimony and records about the wreck. 

In turn, the accused may have competing experts testify about the alleged victim’s health before and after the accident and cast doubt on whether the accident was the cause of the death. If the death occurs months or years after the crash, it may be easier for the defense to show that the person died because of natural or unrelated causes, not because of the collision. 

Because there are so many elements to keep track of in a vehicular homicide case, it can be challenging for those accused of these crimes to handle the case alone. A criminal defense attorney provides invaluable advice and advocacy. A King County DUI attorney aggressively fights for the rights of the accused and helps level the playing field. 

What Are the Possible Penalties for Vehicular Homicide?

Washington State classifies vehicular homicide as a class A felony. It can carry steep penalties ranging from prison time, significant fines, and having your license taken away for some time. Class A felonies may saddle you with a prison sentence that can last up to a lifetime, fines of up to $50,000 or more, or both a prison sentence and a fine. If driving while intoxicated led to the crash, the court may tack on an additional two years for every prior DUI conviction you have. 

Sometimes the court requires the accused to pay restitution to the alleged victim rather than paying fines to the county. If this occurs in your case, the court may ask you to pay the alleged victim’s family directly. 

What Are Manslaughter Charges and Penalties? 

The charges and penalties that come with a manslaughter charge depend on whether the judge or jury finds you guilty of first-degree or second-degree manslaughter. First-degree manslaughter is a class A felony with similar penalties to vehicular homicide. The consequences of a conviction include a prison sentence that may be for life, hefty fines, and, in some cases, restitution to the victim’s family. 

In contrast, second-degree manslaughter is a class B felony. Someone saddled with this charge may be sentenced to up to 10 years or more in prison and up to $20,000 or more in fines. The court may ask the accused to pay money to the alleged victim’s family, rather than the judicial system, to make up for the loss. 

Comparative Analysis of Vehicular Homicide and Manslaughter

The terms vehicular homicide and manslaughter are often used interchangeably, but they are two distinct charges in Washington State. Vehicular homicide involves someone dying from a car crash involving a DUI/DWI, reckless driving, or unsafe driving. The death can occur anytime within three years after the wreck, and there must be a sufficient connection between their crash-related injuries and their death for another person to be held accountable. In contrast, manslaughter occurs if someone dies because of someone else’s reckless or criminally negligent actions. Someone also commits manslaughter if a fetus dies because another person intentionally injured the pregnant mother because they were trying to abort the baby.   

Vehicular homicide convictions are class A felonies that can carry up to a life sentence and $50,000 in fines or restitution. Manslaughter charges, on the other hand, can be class A or B felonies. Class B felonies carry a sentence of up to 10 years in prison and fines up to $20,000 or more. 

Veitch Ault Defense Fights for Those Accused of Vehicular Homicide

If you’re facing vehicular homicide charges, you don’t want to leave the outcome up to chance. A conviction might mean being in jail for a long time and paying significant fines. Instead of taking on the full force of the government alone, arm yourself with a robust legal team that can get the job done. 

Veitch Ault Defense has more than 40 years of combined experience championing the rights of those accused of vehicular homicide, DUI, reckless driving, vehicular assault, and a range of other criminal charges. Robert Ault has an intricate understanding of Washington’s criminal laws and procedures. He started his legal career by working in the King County Prosecutor’s Office for Victim’s Assistance before transitioning to criminal defense – a lifelong career shift. Before joining Veitch Ault Defense, Robert gained valuable skills and hands-on training while working at the Association of Attorneys for the Accused. He’s the attorney you need if the Washington government accuses you of a serious crime like vehicular homicide. 

Contact a Washington DUI attorney on our team today by calling 425-312-6753 to schedule a free, no-obligation consultation.


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