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Criminal Vehicular Operation Charges: Part I

24th October 2017

Many people believe the terms criminal vehicular operation (CVO) and criminal vehicular homicide (CVH) are synonymous with hurting another person when driving while impaired or under the influence.  Although injuring or killing another person while driving under the influence is one of the more common fact patterns in a CVO case, there are other scenarios that can lead to a driver being charged with those very serious offenses.  This article will discuss a few of those scenarios.  The criminal defense attorneys at Lundgren & Johnson hope this article will serve as a friendly reminder regarding the responsibility of all drivers to be attentive on the road, especially as Halloween approaches and the kids in your neighborhood venture out into the night to gather their sugary loot.

Distinction Between CVO and CVH

This article will use the term CVO as an umbrella term for the offense constituting CVO and CVH.  The substantive difference between the two is whether a driver causes death to a person, bodily harm, or death to an unborn child.  The details and nuances between CVO and CVH based on the harm caused as a result of a driver’s conduct will be addressed in more detail in a subsequent post.

Eight Categories of CVO

Criminal vehicular operation is defined as causing the death or injury of another person in any of the following eight circumstances:

  • Operating a motor vehicle in a grossly negligent manner.
  • Operating a motor vehicle in a negligent manner while under the influence of alcohol, a controlled substance, or combination thereof.
  • Operating a motor vehicle with an alcohol concentration of .08 or more.
  • Operating a motor vehicle with an alcohol concentration of .08 or more, as measured within two hours of the time of driving.
  • Operating a motor vehicle knowingly under the influence of a hazardous substance.
  • Operating a motor vehicle negligently with any amount of a Schedule I or II controlled substance, or its metabolite, present in your body (Other than THC or marijuana).
  • Leaving the scene of an accident after causing a collision while driving a motor vehicle.
  • Driving a defectively maintained car with knowledge that a police officer previously issued a citation or warning for the defective maintenance and the defect caused death or bodily injury to another.

As detailed above, there are three distinct categories of CVO that do not necessarily involve drugs, alcohol, or hazardous substances.  Some common fact patterns related to those categories will be discussed below to highlight potential areas of criminal liability that people may not think about when they get behind the wheel.  These fact patterns have either been personally handled by the criminal vehicular operation defense attorneys at Lundgren & Johnson, or investigated by them to help prepare defenses for their clients.

Gross Negligence

Perhaps the most fact-intensive, subjective, and open to interpretation, criminal vehicular operation charges based on gross negligence can cover a wide spectrum of driving behavior.  Minnesota courts have interpreted gross negligence in the CVO context to mean “very great negligence or without even scant care.”  Minnesota courts have provided further guidance and stated that there must be evidence of negligence coupled with the presence of some egregious driving conduct to constitute gross negligence.  So what does this mean in practical terms?

Some common themes that arise in gross negligence criminal vehicular operation cases are cell phones and distracted driving.  As cell phones and related technologies have saturated our daily lives, more and more research is being done to show the dangers of distracted driving.  According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), there were 3,477 people killed in the United States by distracted driving in 2015.  Unless a conscious effort is made to recognize the dangers therein, that number is likely to rise.  It’s not surprising that prosecutors and law enforcement authorities have made such cases a point of emphasis.

The takeaway?  Drivers should leave their phones alone while driving, not just for their safety, but everyone else’s, too.  Not only that, the State cannot accuse a driver of driving in a grossly negligent manner for being on their phone if the driver was not on their phone.  While there are other possibilities of being accused of gross negligence, drivers will effectively eliminate one of the most common accusations in a CVO charge simply by leaving their phone alone while driving in their car.

Leaving the Scene of an Accident (Caused By The Driver)

Criminal vehicular operation charges based on leaving the scene of an accident are a bit simpler to understand conceptually.  Essentially, the driver who causes an accident, either with another vehicle, a pedestrian, bicyclist, or is involved in a single car accident, and causes an injury as a result, leaves the scene.  There are three common fact patterns in this category.

The first fact pattern includes a driver of a vehicle that strikes a pedestrian or bicyclist on the roadway and fails to stop, or stops only momentarily and leaves the scene before the authorities arrive.  The second fact pattern is the typical “hit and run” scenario with another vehicle, where a driver involved in a serious accident flees the scene for any number of reasons, including drug or alcohol use, lack of insurance, or active warrants.  The third fact pattern involves a single car accident where the driver of the vehicle flees on foot and leaves an injured passenger behind.  This scenario typically occurs when an impaired driver panics and makes the mistake of believing that he or she will avoid a stiffer punishment if they flee the scene of an accident.

Drivers involved in accidents resulting in injury have a statutory duty to disclose their name, address, date of birth, registration plate number, and driver’s license to the other party.  The driver also has the statutory duty to render reasonable assistance to anyone injured in the collision.

Defective Maintenance

When a car is defectively maintained, and the driver has reason to know of the defects because of a citation or warning and drives the vehicle anyways, the State imposes criminal vehicular operation liability if injury or death is caused by the defective maintenance.

How can defective maintenance cause death or injury?  The most prevalent defects in these types of cases involve tires, brakes, and lighting equipment.  Bald tires can cause numerous issues which can lead to serious accidents such as lack of traction and maneuverability especially on snow or ice, lack of ability to stop in a timely manner, increased risk of hydroplaning, and increased risk of tire blowouts according to consumerreports.org and fixautousa.com.  Bad brakes may lead to issues in stopping in a reasonable amount of time, or even altogether.  Lastly, lighting issues can cause visibility problems for both the driver with the defective equipment and for other motorists on the roadway.

Commercial drivers (semis and other commercial vehicles) are heavily regulated and under closer scrutiny and supervision than drivers of regular motor vehicles.  Defects in their vehicles are more often detected, cited, and recorded.  This is necessary because of the increased risk associated with commercial motor vehicles due to their size and weight.  Accordingly, charges in this category are most often brought against commercial drivers, but can also be brought against drivers of regular motor vehicles.

It’s easy to put off necessary repairs to vehicles with the busy schedules and never ending demands of daily life.  However, it is important for drivers to keep their vehicles in proper working condition for the safety of themselves, their families, and the drivers they share the road with.  By keeping their cars effectively maintained, drivers will also minimize their potential criminal liability for CVO should they be involved in an accident involving injury or death.

Lundgren & Johnson’s Criminal Vehicular Operation Defense Lawyers

Minnesota criminal vehicular operation laws are broad and encompass a lot of different scenarios – which leads to many Minnesotans being charged with the offense.  However, just because a person is charged does not necessarily mean he or she will be found guilty.  The criminal defense lawyers at Lundgren & Johnson have seen the gamut when it comes to these offenses and understand what is necessary to prepare an effective defense.  Some of those defenses will be explored in detail later in this blog series.

In a perfect world there would be no accidents, no traffic injuries or fatalities, and therefore no one charged with CVO.  That’s not the reality we live in unfortunately.  The criminal vehicular operation attorneys at Lundgren & Johnson understand that accidents happen and good people make bad mistakes.  They also understand that the authorities make mistakes, don’t always get it right, and mistakenly charge people with CVO who should have never been charged.

If you, a loved one, or friend are facing a CVO charge, please feel free to give us a call today at (651) 888-2937 to discuss your options.  We’re here to provide non-judgmental advocacy and support based on our collective knowledge and experience in successfully handling criminal vehicular operation charges across the state of Minnesota.