Virginia Beach Commonwealth’s Attorney Harvey Bryant said today that the law regarding deaths caused by vehicular accidents appears to many to be complicated and difficult to understand. It is especially difficult in a society that has come to assume a legal remedy exists for many tragic events, and that criminal laws must have been broken.
When a death results contrary to the intentions of the person who causes a vehicular accident, the law of involuntary manslaughter comes into consideration. Like several other crimes in Virginia there is no statutory definition of involuntary manslaughter. That crime, like voluntary manslaughter and robbery for example, is considered a “common law” crime that has been defined by courts, not our legislators.
Over the years, Virginia’s appellate courts have addressed the elements required to prove a charge of involuntary manslaughter many times. Quotes such as the following appear frequently in these court decisions.
“In the operation of motor vehicles violation of a safety statute amounting to mere negligence proximately causing an accidental death is not sufficient to support a conviction of involuntary manslaughter.”
“When the proximate cause of a death is simply ordinary negligence, i.e., the failure to exercise reasonable care, the negligent party cannot be convicted of involuntary manslaughter. To constitute criminal negligence essential to a conviction of involuntary manslaughter, an accused’s conduct must be of such reckless, wanton or flagrant nature as to indicate a callous disregard for human life and of the probable consequences of the act.”
It is my obligation and intention to apply the law to the admissible evidence available in making charging decisions in such cases. To do otherwise would be unethical and an abuse of the criminal process. Criminal cases must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt, while civil cases only require a preponderance of the evidence to prevail.
After two reviews of the evidence with members of the Virginia Beach Police Department’s Fatal Crash Team, I have concluded, with their concurrence, that there is no evidentiary basis to charge the school bus driver with involuntary manslaughter or reckless driving in the tragic death of Christian R. Montes.
The on-board video camera shows that the driver was not engaged in any distracting activity prior to impact. On-board equipment also established that the bus was at or below the speed limit at all times that fateful morning. The police interviewed several citizens who observed Montes’ vehicle stopped in the traffic lane before the accident. They noted that the vehicle did not have its flashers on or its headlights at times. Light bulbs and other items from parts of the Montes vehicle were submitted to the Department of Forensic Science for analysis. Their findings were that it was “not possible to determine the ‘on’ or ‘off’ condition” of the lamps at the time of vehicle impact.
I have discussed and reviewed in detail the Virginia Beach Police Department’s investigation and our joint determination that the evidence does not support bringing any charges against the bus driver with Mrs. Montes and her attorney.
Please contact Macie Pridgen if additional information is desired.