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When Can Reckless Driving Lead to Vehicular Manslaughter Charges in Maryland?

Car accidents occur every day in Maryland. Most accidents are the result of simple negligence, such as failing to pay attention to the road. In some cases, however, prosecutors may bring criminal charges for vehicular manslaughter if they believe the driver’s “gross negligence” led to someone’s death.

Gross negligence is used to describe actions that demonstrate a “wanton or reckless disregard of human life.” A common example of such disregard is driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs. But even when alcohol or drugs are not involved, gross negligence can be proven by other factors, such as “excessive speed under the circumstances,” fleeing the accident scene without stopping to aid the victims, or even “unusual or erratic driving prior to impact.”

Maryland Man Sentenced to 10 Years After Driving Car Into a Tree, Killing Passenger

Of course, drugs or alcohol are often the catalyst for bringing vehicular manslaughter charges. A recent unpublished decision from the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, Stokes v. State, provides a case in point. Prosecutors charged the defendant here with vehicular manslaughter following a single-vehicle accident. The defendant was driving his car at the time and the victim was one of his passengers, a 63-year-old hitchhiker he had picked up just prior to the accident.

At trial, the jury heard the evidence that at the time of the accident there was no oncoming traffic or “obvious hazards,” and the defendant was driving “at a high rate of speed” when he drove off the road and hit a tree, causing the passenger’s death. The prosecution further presented evidence that the defendant had used an illegal drug–LSD–the night before the accident and that he was apparently “coming down” from his high the next day when he was driving.

There were additional factors in play such as that the defendant was driving more than 20 miles per hour beyond the posted speed limit, that he “increased the vehicle’s throttle in the three seconds prior to the crash,” and that he apparently made no effort to brake the car before it hit the tree. Another passenger in the vehicle who survived the accident, the defendant’s girlfriend, also testified that he appeared to have “jerked the wheel on purpose” to hit the tree.

The jury found the defendant guilty of vehicular manslaughter. The trial court sentenced him to 10 years in prison. On appeal, the defendant challenged the sufficiency of the evidence to support his conviction. The Court of Special Appeals affirmed the guilty verdict, however, stating that all of the factors described above offered a sufficient basis for the jury to conclude the defendant “acted with a reckless and wanton disregard for human life, and thus drove in a grossly negligent manner.”

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This article has been provided by the Law Office of Robert Castro. For more information or questions contact our office to speak to an experienced lawyer at (301) 705-5137.