Introduction to Vehicular Crimes in Arizona

introduction to vehicular crimes in arizonaAlthough most vehicular crimes are “accidents” relative to more intentional crimes like gun violence, they are still litigated harshly.  Arizona aggressively prosecutes any car accident based on the presence of recklessness, and this recklessness usually-but not always- comes paired with driver inebriation.  This article will outline the various vehicular crimes in Arizona along with their corresponding punishments and potential criminal defenses.

Types of Crimes and Corresponding Defenses:

Negligent Homicide-

Pursuant to A.R.S. 13-1102, a negligent homicide conviction when related to driving requires the driver to have failed to perceive a substantial risk where a reasonable person would have.  When discussing negligent homicide, the distinction must be made between manslaughter and negligent homicide, because they are fairly similar.  Manslaughter, although still considered an unintentional homicide, requires a deviation from a certain standard of conduct.  In other words, to commit manslaughter, a driver had to act in a way beyond any conception of normal behavior.  The driver had to act in a way that was truly reckless.  Negligent homicide, on the other hand, only requires negligence.

To solidify this distinction, let us say a pedestrian is walking along a crosswalk.  To commit manslaughter, the driver would have to not only hit the pedestrian, but do so while driving recklessly- perhaps at an illegal speed limit or while swerving.  Negligent homicide, however, only implies negligence.  Thus, if the driver was operating his vehicle perfectly legally but failed to see the pedestrian in the crosswalk, he/she would be charged with negligent homicide.

Because a negligent homicide is based on negligence rather than recklessness, the punishments are lower than for a manslaughter conviction.  For a first time offender, a negligent homicide offense, as long as it is not committed with a deadly weapon, carries with it fairly wide punishment range depending on the circumstances.  Punishments for a negligent homicide charge can be as low as no jail time, all the way up to three and a half years in prison.  This is largely based on whether the driver was intoxicated; the definition of negligent becomes muddled when the driver is inebriated, falling closer to the term “reckless.”  Accordingly, DUI negligent homicide convictions are charged similar to convictions of manslaughter.

The punishments become even worse for repeat offenders.  For second time offenders, the prison range rises to between two and seven and a half years.  For third time offenders, the prison range is between six and fifteen years.

Defense-

A successful negligent homicide defense revolves around proving that the defendant did not act in a way which constitutes a gross deviation from normal conduct.  This could be done in one of two ways.  The first is to prove that it was the victim’s fault.  For instance, if a man was biking in the street at night with no lights and is hit, the defense could show that the victim was acting in an illegal or unsafe manner, and thus remove blame from the defendant.  The second is to show that the defendant was not acting in a manner deviating from normal conduct.

These two defenses could overlap; for instance, with the prior bicyclist example, it could be proven both that the defendant was driving in a typical, legal fashion and that the bicyclist was behaving in an illegal way.  However, this second defense has the potential to go beyond the first.  For instance, let us say a pedestrian is hit and killed because the driver’s brakes went out.  If the defense could prove that the driver followed required maintenance checks and that the brakes went out, say, due to the fault of a mechanic, this is not considered negligence.  However, if the negligent homicide charge is paired with a DUI charge, a successful defense will be difficult.  This is because the very act of driving intoxicated implies negligence, and thus, proves the charge.

Aggravated Assault-

aggravated assault and vehicular crimes in arizonaPursuant to A.R.S. 13-1204, an aggravated assault charge in Arizona requires that the offender recklessly or knowingly caused physical injury to another person, with or without a dangerous instrument.  Vehicular aggravated assault places the vehicle as the “dangerous instrument,” and thus allows the prosecution to convict the charge as a class three dangerous felony.  This is a very serious conviction, carrying with it a punishment range of five years prison minimum up to a maximum of fifteen years.  It is a presumptive punishment of seven and a half years.  However, if the victim was under fifteen years old or was a police officer, the offense rises to a class 2 felony, with a punishment range of a minimum seven years to a maximum twenty one years in prison, with a presumptive punishment of ten and a half years.

Because a vehicular aggravated assault charge requires either intent or recklessness, it is commonly paired with a DUI charge.  This will further raise the punishment range, and will also come with other punishments like drug and alcohol courses and a possible suspension of your driver’s license.  This makes an aggravated assault charge one of the most damaging vehicular crimes in Arizona.

Defense-

Because the prosecution must prove the defendant was driving recklessly- that is, knowingly disregarding a substantial and unjustifiable risk that the result would occur or that a dangerous circumstance existed- the defense must clearly prove the opposite.  First, this could be done by questioning forensic reliability in the case of  a corresponding DUI charge.  If the charge of recklessness is largely based on inebriation, and the breathalyzer test was done on a handheld device upon being pulled over, there is a precedent for unreliability in reporting.  Additionally, the defense must show that even if the scenario was reported correctly, the defendant did not act in an unreasonable fashion.  For instance, if the victim was pointing a gun at you before the vehicular assault, this could be shown as an extenuating circumstance affecting what is considered “reasonable conduct.”  Witnesses present for the accident could be used for testimony, as well as any investigation of the car’s mechanics to divert blame from the driver.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             Endangerment-

Pursuant to A.R.S. 13-1201, Endangerment is defined as a person recklessly endangering another person with a substantial risk of imminent death or endangerment and vehicular crimes in arizonaphysical injury.  Endangerment is one of the most common and over charged crimes in the state of Arizona.  This is because police officers can justifiably charge someone with Endangerment- a Class 6 felony- in lieu of Reckless Driving- a misdemeanor charge.  The standards between the two are very close, but there are several distinctions which determine one versus the other.  To convict someone of Endangerment, it must be proven that the driver was “consciously disregarding a substantial and unjustifiable risk that the result would occur or that a dangerous circumstance existed.”  It must be proven that the conduct displayed by the driver was a gross deviation from what is considered common practice.

If Endangerment is proven, the offender is charged with a Class 6 felony, carrying with it a presumptive punishment of one year in prison.  Ironically, even though Endangerment is often overcharged corruptly in lieu of reckless driving, it is also overcharged to the defense’s benefit.  Often, a defense attorney will attempt to negotiate an Endangerment charge in lieu of an aggravated assault charge, possibly saving the defendant years in prison time.

Defense-

An Endangerment conviction requires the driver to display an extreme indifference to human life.  Because the extremity of an Endangerment charge lies between an aggravated assault charge
and a far lesser reckless driving misdemeanor charge, it is employed by both the defense and the prosecution depending upon the situation.  As mentioned above, Endangerment is very commonly overcharged in place of a reckless driving charge by police officers.  In this situation, it is obviously in the defense’s best interest to disprove the Endangerment charge.  To lower an Endangerment charge to a reckless driving charge, the key relevant factor is the presence of people.  Even if the defendant was driving recklessly, there had to have been people either on the road or on the sidewalk to constitute endangerment.  Otherwise, it is just recklessness.  Moreover, even if it can be proven that there were people nearby, the defense can attempt to show that the driving was not in fact reckless.  This could be proven in a variety of ways, including video cameras and black boxes that record speed and rate of acceleration.

On the other side of things, an Endangerment charge may be sought in lieu of a more damaging Aggravated Assault charge.  Often, the prosecution will settle on a charge of Endangerment even if the evidence supports Aggravated Assault, to avoid a trial.  If the defense attempts to use this strategy in court, the attorney must appeal the definition of Aggravated Assault as encompassing two mutually exclusive criteria:

1- intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly causing serious physical injury or substantial disfigurement to another

2- using a deadly weapon or instrument ( a car) to intentionally place someone in imminent fear of serious physical injury.

If the defense wants to lower an Aggravated Assault charge to an Endangerment charge, the evidence must show that the defendant only exhibited criteria number two; in other words, the defendant could not have actually injured another person.  From there, the defense attorney can equate the two, and possibly lower the charge from a Class 4 to Class 6 felony.  Click on the following link for news on vehicular arrests in Tucson.

Leaving the Scene of an Accident-

leaving the scene of an accident and vehicular crimes in arizonaPursuant to A.R.S. 28-661, leaving the scene of an accident requires the driver leave without offering reasonable assistance to the victim.  There are a few conditions which affect the punishment of this charge; if the accident does not result in death or serious injury, the driver will be charged with a Class 5 felony, punishable by up to two and a half years in prison.  If the accident did result in serious injury or death, the driver will be charged with a Class 3 felony, punishable by up to eight and a half years in prison.  If you fully caused the auto accident, you will be charged with a Class 2 felony, punishable by up to twelve and a half years in prison.  This charge is stacked with other charges related to the accident, resulting in a substantial prison sentence.  It must be noted that this charge is different from a standard hit and run, which is a Misdemeanor charge.

Defense-

There are several possible defenses to a leaving the scene charge.  The first is to claim ignorance to the accident itself, or to claim that the defendant thought there was no damage.  This defense could work with a hit and run charge, but is unlikely to for a more serious felony charge where the damage is serious and apparent.  However, the ignorance defense could work in the case of a nighttime pedestrian or bicyclist hit and run.  It is possible that the driver thought that they hit an animal or that they were hit by a piece of debris, and may continue driving.

Another common defense is that the driver thought they were being set up by the victim.  This is most typically used if the driver was in a bad area of town, and justifiably thought that the accident would result in a robbery if they exited their vehicle.  This same defense also applies to cases of road rage.  If the victim behaves in an irrational and aggressive manner beyond reason, the driver may have been justified in driving away.  This, just like other defenses, relies on a full breadth of accommodating circumstances and relevant evidence.  If you have been convicted of any vehicular crime, do not hesitate to contact an experienced defense attorney.

Interested in learning more about vehicular crimes in the state of Arizona?  We’d love to hear from you!  Comment below or reach out to us on our social media channels.  If you need criminal defense assistance for a vehicular crime in the state of Arizona, contact an experienced defense attorney today.