Criminal Charges for Autonomous Driving Is Becoming a Real ThingThe future is here, folks. We may not have flying cars and commercial teleportation, but the times are still a-changing at a rapid pace. Now, some cars can drive themselves (in theory)! Aside from sounding like something right out of science fiction, this new innovation is an exciting and welcome development for all people who, for whatever reason, either cannot or do not want to drive but may still need reliable transportation for their daily lives. Even if it’s just because the morning commute is hell and you’d much rather spend the extra thirty minutes napping in your own passenger seat*, autonomous vehicles are stirring quite the demand.

*Don’t do this. Don’t say we said you could do this, either. We’re actively telling you NOT to do this.

With new inventions and changes to how we exist in our daily lives, though, come new laws and regulations to make them as safe and fair as possible. For those who love Tesla or are otherwise especially invested in the idea of driverless driving, this is for you: the relatively lawless world you have been operating in is ceasing to exist. While it does take time for laws and how they’re enforced to catch up with modern innovation, it does still happen, and you don’t want to be caught in the middle of that. If you think you can’t get in trouble for your cheeky non-driving test on TikTok, think again.

How drivers in autonomous vehicles can still be criminally liable

Of course, not everyone has access to autonomous vehicles yet. Even those that do know that the features aren’t quite as independent as a movie would probably make it out to be. But they still exist, and that’s still exciting, and they still inspire their users to take risks they probably (definitely) shouldn’t take. As with any shiny new toy since the dawn of time, it begs to be played with.

Namely, everyone wants to test — really badly — just how good each one of their vehicle’s sensors are. How trustworthy is it, really? It’s not that this is a bad question to ask, but if one’s way of “asking” is sitting in their own back seat on Facebook Live with no seatbelt on as their father’s Tesla races down the freeway, well…yeah, that’s not a great way to ask. No, not everyone does this, but there’s a worrying trend of drivers being distracted on purpose with their vehicle’s autopilot engaged. Aside from the obvious safety concerns if and when those sensors do fail in some way (or the automatic braking, steering, etc…), there are also the actual laws of the road to worry about.

Law enforcement is figuring out how to apply different driving violations to those who are not, in fact, driving — at least in the case of autonomous vehicles. People are starting to find this out the hard way with an increasing frequency. A “backup driver” for Uber’s short-lived autonomous vehicle test was  charged with negligent homicide because the vehicle in question failed to stop in time before striking and killing a pedestrian. Despite what the driver says, the allegation is that she was watching The Voice on her phone instead of watching the road for this very thing.

Now, that was back in 2020. Two years later and there have been more charges against more drivers of autonomous vehicles, and they’re increasingly severe. There’s no immunity-by-ignorance anymore; someone has officially been charged with a felony for an autonomous driving accident for the first time. It wasn’t even a fully autonomous vehicle, but that wasn’t the point. The point, according to the prosecution, was that the driver wasn’t paying enough attention to the road and put too much faith in technology to do what it was designed for, and that is why two people were killed.

Love it or hate it, this is not going to get better. If you plan to have an autonomous vehicle — or if you do already — you’re going to want to accept that and act accordingly.

Vehicular manslaughter in Maryland: negligence vs purposeful misuse

One thing the law is great at, in general, is creating terrifying words and phrases while still making them as vague and confusing as possible. Really, they are unmatched. If you are facing criminal charges of some sort, chances are you’re figuring that out right about now. That’s one of the reasons why attorneys exist — to be your experts-for-hire in the confusing language of law and get it to work for you, instead of against. However, even if it is confusing and terrifying, it’s still important for you to try to understand yourself if it’s something you’re actually being charged with, or even if it’s just something you might encounter in the future.

Those people mentioned in the previous section were charged differently even though they were, on paper, the same crimes. But one was a misdemeanor, and the other a felony. In the state of Maryland, the way they define their charges works in a similar way. Vehicular manslaughter counts as homicide, and it can branch off into two categories from that point:

  • Criminal negligence, which is defined as a failure to exercise reasonable care and caution, resulting in an accident that takes someone else’s life. Fiddling with the radio or texting (or watching a television show while your car drives itself) would fall under this category. It’s a misdemeanor that can result in a $5,000 fine and up to three years in prison.
  • Gross negligence is where things become felonious. For this conviction, the prosecution has to prove a voluntary and knowledgeable disregard for the safety of others as the cause for the accident, such as drinking and driving. It can be harder to prove, but it’s no longer impossible. And again, this one is a felony that can cost you 10 years in prison with your $5,000 fine.

As you can see, proving intent is the big thing here. That’s not easy to prove from either side, even if it’s your own intent you’re trying to prove. If you’ve been charged with a driving crime after an accident with your autonomous vehicle, you need representation now. Drew Cochran, Attorney at Law, is an Annapolis criminal defense attorney that knows what convinces a jury and how to negotiate for lesser sentences and dropped charges. Here for you in Ellicott City and Annapolis, this could be the most important call of your life. Call today at 410-271-1892 or use the contact form, and take a deep breath. We got you.

Remember: keep calm, and call Drew!