Mark Roman | February 27, 2023 | Car Accidents
There is no one-size-fits-all answer to whether you will go to jail after a fatal car accident in Clearwater. It depends on many factors, including whether you caused the accident and, if so, your degree of culpability.
The short answer is “maybe, but not necessarily.” To send you to jail for killing someone in a car accident, Florida must convict you of vehicular homicide. You can also go to jail for accident-related reasons that do not amount to homicide.
If you cause an accident that kills someone, whether you go to jail or prison depends on your state of mind at the time you committed the crime—ordinary negligence, for example, or recklessness.
Ordinary negligence, the standard of culpability in a personal injury lawsuit, means failure to exercise the degree of care that a “reasonable person” would have exercised. Ordinary negligence is enough to subject you to a wrongful death lawsuit for very high monetary damages. Nevertheless, ordinary negligence cannot support a criminal prosecution against you.
The mental state of recklessness can support a criminal prosecution for vehicular homicide. Florida law, distressingly, does not clearly define exactly what recklessness is. It is certain, however, that it means a degree of culpability that is much more serious than the ordinary negligence standard that would justify a civil lawsuit.
Reckless driving might mean:
- Driving while intoxicated on alcohol or drugs;
- Texting while driving;
- Intentionally running another driver off the road (without intending to kill them, which would likey constitute murder);
- Racing on a public road;
- Driving with your lights off at night;
- Driving far over the posted speed limit;
- Blatantly ignoring traffic rules, such as driving the wrong way on a one-way street or running a series of red lights.
Generally speaking, you drive recklessly if your driving exhibits conscious disregard for the lives or safety of others.
Maximum Penalties for Vehicular Homicide
In Florida, the maximum penalty for vehicular homicide is 15 years in prison. However, if you leave the scene of the accident (hit-and-run), the maximum penalty is 30 years in prison. This 15-year disparity in sentencing is designed to encourage you to remain at the scene of the accident and render all necessary aid to save the life of the victim.
The Burden of Proof: Civil vs. Criminal Proceedings
The burden of proof in a legal proceeding states how much evidence you need to win. In a civil lawsuit (such as a wrongful death lawsuit), the standard is “a preponderance of the evidence.” Put simply, you have a preponderance of the evidence if you have enough evidence to convince the jury that your claim is more likely than not to be true. Some people call this the “51% rule.”
In a criminal prosecution, the prosecution bears the burden of proving your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. That means the prosecution has enough evidence to firmly convince a reasonable person that you are guilty. It doesn’t mean 100% certainty, but it might mean something like 95% certainty. It is enough evidence to make a reasonable person comfortable about convicting you without worrying that you might be innocent.
Would you be surprised to learn that it is common for a defendant to win an acquittal of a charge of reckless homicide but lose a wrongful death lawsuit based on the exact same accident? This happened in the O.J. Simpson trials in California in the 1990s. Former NFL star O.J. Simpson won an acquittal of murder charges, but lost a subsequent wrongful death lawsuit based on the deaths of the same people.
Defenses Against Vehicular Homicide Charges
There are several ways to defend yourself against vehicular homicide charges, depending on the circumstances. Remember, since the prosecution needs “guilt beyond a reasonable doubt,” all you need is reasonable doubt to beat the prosecution. Some common defense include:
- Excluding evidence that the police illegally seized (the exclusionary rule);
- Establishing that your intoxication was involuntary, or
- Discrediting the witnesses against you.
The defense that you use will depend completely on the specific facts of your case.
Alternative: DUI Charges
If Florida charges you with DUI after a fatal car accident, the police can arrest you even if you did not cause the accident. In that case, you could definitely go to jail. Although jail time is not mandatory for a first offense, the court will likely impose it on you since a fatality was involved, even if you did not cause it.
Contact a Lawyer for Legal Help and Advice
Your best best is to involve a lawyer in your case as soon as possible. A lawyer who is present from the beginning will understand your case much better than one who doesn’t get involved until later. The more that is at stake for you, the more you need a lawyer to help protect your legal rights and interests.
Contact the Clearwater Car Accident Law Firm of Roman Austin Personal Injury Lawyers for Help Today
For more information, please contact the legal team of Roman Austin Personal Injury Lawyers for a free initial consultation with a car accident lawyer in Clearwater. We have four convenient locations in Florida: Clearwater, New Port Richey, and Tampa.
Roman Austin Personal Injury Lawyers – Clearwater Office
1811 N. Belcher Road, Suite I-1
Clearwater, FL 33765
Roman Austin Personal Injury Lawyers – Congress Ave Office
2360 Congress Avenue
Clearwater, FL 33763
Roman Austin Personal Injury Lawyers – Tampa Office
6601 Memorial Hwy Suite 202
Tampa, FL 33615
Roman Austin Personal Injury Lawyers – New Port Richey Office
2515 Seven Springs Blvd.
New Port Richey, FL, 34655