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Criminal Vehicular Operation Laws and Penalties in Minnesota

Dangerous driving habits can lead to terrible consequences. Motorists who speed, follow too closely, and flout the rules of the road endanger everyone near them. But usually, these drivers face traffic tickets and civil liability, not criminal liability. Most drivers avoid engaging in conduct that can subject them to arrest for criminal vehicular operation (CVO).

But a surprisingly high number of Minnesota drivers cross the line from poor driving to criminal driving. Reckless driving, drunk driving, and drugged driving are all criminal offenses that can lead to license revocations and jail time. When these actions harm another, the offender faces CVO charges. When they kill someone, they face criminal vehicular homicide charges.

Criminal Vehicular Homicide

Criminal vehicular homicide is the most serious of Minnesota’s criminal vehicular operation laws. This major felony charge results when law enforcement alleges a driver caused the death of another person or unborn child through one of three actions:

  • Operating a vehicle in a “grossly negligent” manner
  • Violating Minnesota DUI laws
  • Failing to fix a maintenance problem after a citation when that specific issue resulted in the death of another

A motorist can also face vehicular manslaughter charges if he flees the scene of a fatal accident.

Gross Negligence Example in Minnesota

Gross negligence charges arise when a motorist operates a vehicle in a manner that disregards the safety of others. Note that gross negligence differs from the negligence that applies to civil personal injury and wrongful death claims.

For example, criminal gross negligence might arise if a driver engaged in a drag race at 75 mph down a 35 mph road runs down and kills a pedestrian. This is a departure from a typical accident. The drag racer was intentionally engaging in an action a reasonable person knows endangers the life and safety of others.

On the other hand, a more typical accident that results in a fatality may not qualify as gross negligence, though the driver may face civil liability for wrongful death.

For example, imagine a driver is making a turn at a crowded intersection. He believes the oncoming lanes are clear and makes the turn. However, he did not see a vehicle in the far lane and a collision resulted, tragically causing the death of his passenger.

This collision resulted from a mistake, not a criminal act. The driver did not intentionally place other people’s safety and lives in danger. Therefore, he is unlikely to face criminal vehicular homicide charges.

On the other hand, this motorist may face a wrongful death lawsuit. Clearly, he was the negligent or at-fault driver because he made the turn against traffic when he had no right of way.

However, he may not have 100% liability. It’s possible the other driver was speeding and so contributed to the accident. In that case, a civil verdict may hold both parties liable, though not equally.

Causing a Death Through the Violation of Minnesota’s DUI laws

Fatal DUI accidents account for most of the criminal vehicular homicide charges in the state. Often, but not always, the state finds DUI vehicular homicide charges relatively easy to prove. Provided the state can demonstrate the defendant was driving while impaired at the time he caused the fatal accident, it has a very winnable case.

However, convictions are far from a foregone conclusion. The state’s case may lack proof of a vital element in demonstrating criminal vehicular homicide, requiring the case’s dismissal. Furthermore, the defense may raise reasonable doubt in regard to the defendant’s impairment, the cause of the accident, of who drove the vehicle.

For instance, suppose the police respond to an auto accident and find two vehicles smashed in a head-on collision and the driver of one vehicle deceased, and the other driver apparently impaired.

Is the surviving driver automatically guilty of criminal vehicular homicide?

No. The state must prove that he caused the death through his impaired driving. The scenario above does not in itself demonstrate this. To win, the state needs to develop more proof.

Firstly, the state needs to prove that the defendant was impaired. Apparently being intoxicated is insufficient. To do this, law enforcement can obtain a blood test showing the driver was above the legal limit. If the state does this and the defense cannot raise a reasonable doubt as to its accuracy, then the state has proven impairment. The law presumes impairment provided the defendant was above the legal limit at the time of the collision.

But what if the defendant was under the legal limit at the time of the crash?

Minnesota is a zero-tolerance DUI state. Accordingly, a court can find the defendant guilty of DUI even if he was under the legal limit, provided the state proves he was impaired. For example, the prosecution may present witness testimony that the defendant was swerving and dash cam video showing signs of impaired driving. In addition, the state may show police bodycam video of the driver showing signs of impairment.

In this example, the state has a winnable case despite the driver has been under the legal limit. For the defense to win, it would need to raise a reasonable doubt as to the defendant having been impaired. For example, it could dispute the witness testimony and video evidence, arguing the defendant did not show signs of impairment, the actions shown did not result from an impairment, or some other explanation exists.

Also, the state must have proof that the defendant caused the wrongful death. Even if it shows the driver was intoxicated, that does not automatically make that person at fault for the death. For example, the deceased driver could have been the one who crossed the yellow line and caused the accident, while the impaired driver remained in his lane. In that case, the impairment did not result in fatality.

Vehicular Homicide Penalties in Minnesota

Vehicular homicide convictions carry a maximum sentence of ten years in prison and a $20,000 fine, though a previous conviction for a “qualified driving offense” makes the offender eligible for up to 15 years in prison. Qualified prior driving offenses include the following:

  • First and second-degree DWI
  • Criminal vehicular homicide involving alcohol or drugs, and
  • Criminal vehicular injury involving alcohol or drugs.

Minnesota law mandates the immediate suspension of the Minnesota driver’s license of a suspect charged with criminal vehicular homicide. If convicted of vehicular homicide due to alcohol or drugs, the offender faces a six- to 10-year license revocation. Other criminal vehicular homicide convictions require a ten-year revocation. Additionally, convicts must wait one year before applying for a provisional license, such as one allowing them to drive to work or medical appointments.

What Is CVO?

CVO charges stem from the same misconduct as a criminal vehicular homicide but the incident did not result in the death of another person or unborn baby. For example, a drag racer or drunk driver who caused another major bodily harm may have CVO charges.

The state prevails in a CVO case when it proves gross negligence or alcohol and drug impairment. For instance, if a driver caused another great bodily harm while driving recklessly due to road rage, the state has a case for CVO. If it proves the defendant acted in a way a reasonable person knows could cause serious injury, it can win at trial.

Additionally, drivers who leave the scene of injury accidents may face CVO charges. To prevail at trial, the prosecution must prove that the defendant left the scene of an accident where serious bodily injury to another was obvious and he declined to notify the police.

CVO cases can also result from neglect of maintenance needed for a vehicle to be road safe. However, this charge only results if the driver was previously cited for the dangerous maintenance defect and the injury accident resulted from that same issue. For instance, if a driver was cited for failing brakes, continues to drive, and causes an injury accident because of those failing brakes, he faces CVO jeopardy.

CVO Sentences

Courts decide on CVO sentences based on the level of misconduct, the severity of injurie(s), and the offender’s criminal record.

CVO charges in Minnesota are wobblers. Wobblers are offenses that can lead to a felony or misdemeanor conviction.

Felony CVO

Defendants are eligible for felony CVO charges if their conduct caused great bodily harm or substantial bodily harm to another person or unborn child.

Minnesota law defines great bodily harm as more serious than substantial bodily harm that creates a high probability of death, serious permanent disfigurement, or permanent loss or impairment of any part of the body. Offenders convicted of CVO causing great bodily harm face up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000.

Substantial Bodily Harm in Minnesota

Minnesota law defines substantial bodily harm as a fracture or a temporary and substantial disfigurement, loss, or impairment. Offenders convicted of CVO with substantial bodily harm face a maximum of three years in prison and a fine of $10,000.

Gross Misdemeanor CVO

Minnesota law defines gross misdemeanor CVO as driving conduct that caused bodily harm that is less than substantial bodily harm. Offenders convicted of gross misdemeanor CVO face up to one year in jail and a fine of up to $10,000.

In addition to prison and fines, CVO convictions may result in vehicle forfeitures, license cancellations, loss of gun license privileges, and forfeiture of the right to vote.

CVO and vehicular homicide charges can land offenders in prison for a long time. Courts come down hard on these offenses because they involve disregard for the safety and lives of others.

But those facing CVO and vehicular homicide charges are presumed innocent. Prosecutors may lack sufficient evidence to pass court scrutiny or convince a jury beyond a reasonable doubt. In some situations, police and prosecutors stretch the facts to win the indictment of an innocent person.

Gerald Miller Law has extensive experience with CVO and vehicular homicide cases. No one gets away with railroading our clients. We fight to ensure that the rights of the accused are respected and our clients never spend a day in jail unjustly.

If you are facing criminal driving charges, contact Gerald Miller P.A. right away. Any statement you make without an attorney may land you in prison–even if you’re innocent. Don’t delay. Call Gerald Miller P.A. today.

Related Content: What Does Criminal Vehicular Operation Mean?


About the author

Kyle Dreger

Kyle Dreger is a skilled DUI/DWI and Criminal Defense lawyer at Gerald Miller P.A. Kyle has received his law degree from the University of St. Thomas School of Law. He is also a professionally trained basketball player.

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