This question is inspired by the Anne Sacoolas incident, but I'm asking about the law rather than the politics.

Suppose that an Englishman with no diplomatic immunity were to absent-mindedly drive on the wrong side of the road in the USA and thereby cause the death of an on-coming motorcyclist. After the crash the Englishman calls the emergency services and submits to arrest, and there are no other issues such as speeding or alcohol.

What would the likely charges be in such a case, and (assuming the facts are not in dispute) what would the likely sentence be?

I know the laws on this will vary by state so lets take California as an example, but if they are significantly different elsewhere then please mention that too.

1 Answer 1


This is manslaughter of the vehicular variety

Manslaughter is the unlawful killing of a human being without malice. It is of three kinds:...

(c) Vehicular—

(1) ... driving a vehicle in the commission of a lawful act which might produce death, in an unlawful manner, and with gross negligence.

This is what they call a wobbler, and could be charged as a felony or a misdemeanor. In the latter case, the maximum penalty is a year in county jail and in the former it is six years in state prison. If the cause was ordinary negligence, it is just a misdemeanor. The details of gross negligence are set forth in the jury instruction CALCRIM 592

A person acts with gross negligence when:

  1. He or she acts in a reckless way that creates a high risk of death or great bodily injury; AND
  2. A reasonable person would have known that acting in that way would create such a risk. In other words, a person acts with gross negligence when the way he or she acts is so different from how an ordinarily careful person would act in the same situation that his or her act amounts to disregard for human life or indifference to the consequences of that act.

The "absent-mindedness" defense seems a bit far fetched, but still not everybody who drives inattentively is prosecuted for a felony, or even a misdemeanor. However, it is really hard to imagine not being acutely aware of the fact that people drive on the right side of the road here. Without a more-detailed story, I don't see a basis for deciding what level of negligence a prosecutor is likely to argue for, and what the prosecutor's agenda is: somewhere between no prosecution, and (most likely) misdemeanor manslaughter.

  • 2
    "However, it is really hard to imagine not being acutely aware of the fact that people drive on the right side of the road here." Ever driven in the UK? You may be "acutely aware" most of the time, but one night you pull out of your drive when there is no other traffic and your muscle memory puts you on the wrong side of the road. I know from experience just how easy this mistake is to make. However if I then had to face a jury with no experience of driving on the left... Jan 25, 2020 at 21:16
  • @PaulJohnson what really gets you is going around a roundabout the “wrong” way.
    – Dale M
    Jan 28, 2020 at 11:35

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