We regularly deal with grieving families who have lost a loved one to a vehicular manslaughter caused by a negligent driver.  As civil lawyers we do what we can under the wrongful death statute to take care of these people.  This remains true whether the lost loved one is a cyclist, pedestrian or another driver.  One thing we often see is how the fact that Idaho law treats deaths caused by negligent drivers as mere misdemeanors adds to the grief, loss and victimization of these families.   Our experience teaches us that treating a death caused by someone behind the wheel as less important than other deaths is a slap in their face.  We believe the criminal law should be changed to make an accidental death caused by a driver treated the same as other accidental deaths.

It’s time to change Idaho law so drivers who kill can be held accountable*

Killing a person with your car requires more accountability than one year in jail. Recently, the family of Frances and Bob Goar have learned that Idaho drivers face minimal punishment after killing residents. Let’s stop revictimizing people, such as the Goar family and the families of others, like Joann Baker, Jim Chu, Sandy Hernandez and Kevin Pavlis. All of them were killed by drivers.

Usually if you accidentally kill a person you are subject to up to 10 years in jail. If the weapon is a car, you get off easy. Deadly drivers should not get special treatment.

Manslaughter happens when a parson causes a death without any forethought. Idaho has three types of manslaughter: voluntary, involuntary and vehicular. Both voluntary and involuntary manslaughter are felonies.

Crimes are categorized based on the potential penalty. If punishable by prison for over a year, it’s a felony; if by a year or less in jail, it’s a misdemeanor.

Voluntary manslaughter, punishable by up to 19 years, requires a sudden quarrel or a “heat of passion” killing. Involuntary manslaughter, punishable by up to 10 years, arises from negligent use of a firearm or accidentally killing someone while doing a legal act “without due caution.”

Idaho treats killing with a car differently. If the driver is drunk or otherwise intoxicated, it is punished like voluntary manslaughter.

If not drunk but acting illegally with “gross negligence,” then it is punished like involuntary manslaughter. Gross negligence means “a wanton, flagrant or reckless disregard of consequences or willful indifference of the safety or rights of others.”

Gross negligence is a standard that prosecutors have a difficulty proving in many deaths.

It’s when the driver kills while committing an “unlawful act, not amounting to a felony, without gross negligence,” that it’s merely a misdemeanor. So killing a person while speeding, inattentively driving, illegally turning or running a red light is subject to a year or less of jail.

In the Goars’ case, the Ada County prosecutor probably decided that gross negligence was not provable against Christopher Lammey, despite his history of bad driving. That’s because defense against it is easy. “I was just distracted, I was ‘just’ negligent, not reckless or showing flagrant disregard.”

The Goars and other innocents are just as dead. As with firearms, negligent use of cars kills. The driver remains culpable. Personal accountability demands appropriate punishment. The families deserve to have society acknowledge their loss.

It’s time for lawmakers to remove the gross negligence requirement.

There might be circumstances where a lighter sentence is warranted. Let judges evaluate that. There is no reason that a person behind the wheel of a car who kills someone while breaking a driving law should be exposed to only a misdemeanor. Particularly where the law otherwise says a person who engages in a lawful act which might produce death without due caution and circumspection is subject to a felony.

The Idaho Legislature should stop giving drivers this special pass to kill pedestrians, children, cyclists and other motorists.

*This post was published as a guest opinion in The Idaho Statesman on June 28, 2019.  It is an edited and reduced version of a guest opinion originally published in The Idaho Press on June 25, 2019.