A deeply disturbing case in Los Angeles could raise some difficult legal questions. The police have released a video of three vehicles hitting that same man in the middle of a road and then fleeing the scene. The question is how to charge the drivers once they are apprehended.
The 50-year-old man was first hit by a motorcyclist and then by a car and then by a third vehicle. All three drivers drove away. [This video contains disturbing elements]
The video suggests that the drivers knew that they hit a person. The question is which driver could be charged with murder or vehicular homicide of the man (later identified as Jose Fuentes). He may have survived the first hit by the motorcycle but the second hit was devastating. Yet, it is possible that he could have still be alive by the time of the third hit, though it seems unlikely. This will clearly be a question for the pathologist but it may be difficult to determine given the closeness of the impacts.
Of course, the first hit left Fuentes in the helpless condition that led to his being run over by the second vehicle.
One charge would be California Penal Code 192(c) for vehicular manslaughter:
Manslaughter is the unlawful killing of a human being without malice. It is of three kinds:
(a) Voluntary—upon a sudden quarrel or heat of passion.
(b) Involuntary—in the commission of an unlawful act, not amounting to a felony; or in the commission of a lawful act which might produce death, in an unlawful manner, or without due caution and circumspection. This subdivision shall not apply to acts committed in the driving of a vehicle.
(1) Except as provided in subdivision (a) of Section 191.5, driving a vehicle in the commission of an unlawful act, not amounting to a felony, and with gross negligence; or driving a vehicle in the commission of a lawful act which might produce death, in an unlawful manner, and with gross negligence.
(2) Driving a vehicle in the commission of an unlawful act, not amounting to a felony, but without gross negligence; or driving a vehicle in the commission of a lawful act which might produce death, in an unlawful manner, but without gross negligence.
(3) Driving a vehicle in connection with a violation of paragraph (3) of subdivision (a) of Section 550, where the vehicular collision or vehicular accident was knowingly caused for financial gain and proximately resulted in the death of any person. This paragraph does not prevent prosecution of a defendant for the crime of murder.
This would appear a case for gross negligence but there would be defenses due to the limited lighting and time to react for the drivers. Drivers are expected however to take such conditions into account in reducing their speed.
Then there are the obvious hit-and-run charges. There appears to be two options under California law. Under Vehicle Code § 20002, you can be charged with a misdemeanor for leaving any accident that causes property damage without providing your name and other information. This can result in up to six months in jail and three years of probation (as well as up to $1,000,000 in damages. There is also the possibility of a felony hit and run charge under California Penal Code §20001 where someone other than the driver was injured or killed.
20001 (a) The driver of a vehicle involved in an accident resulting in injury to a person, other than himself or herself, or in the death of a person shall immediately stop the vehicle at the scene of the accident and shall fulfill the requirements of Sections 20003 and 20004.
That can be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony. The first and second drivers would seem to meet the definition under the felony provision.
Notably, the California jury instruction requires that the driver caused death or serious bodily injury. That raises the possible defense of the second and third drivers that Fuentes was already dead at the time of their contact. There is no question that they illegally fled the scene but the more serious felony charge can lead to three years in prison.
The prosecutors could fudge the difference, particularly for the first two drivers. Even if the jury did not find that first hit caused the death of Fuentes, both drivers clearly caused serious bodily injury. In addition, the first driver could face vehicular manslaughter, though again the forensics and pathology will be key to such a case. It is the third driver who could present the most difficult issues if defense could argue that he or she struck a dead body rather than a living person. That would still leave the misdemeanor charge but the criminal exposure is much less in terms of jail time.
The second and third drivers would have been in a more defensible position if they stopped at the scene. In such a case, they could argue a lack of negligence due to the limited space and time to react. Instead, they have triggered the hit-and-run provisions, including possible felony charges.