In a drunk driving accident, when another person is killed, the impaired driver may face vehicular manslaughter or gross vehicular manslaughter. However, if the driver has a prior DUI and was given a warning about the dangers of drunk driving, the driver may face murder charges.
The penalties for a DUI murder charge are more serious than vehicular manslaughter and can lead to life in prison. If you have been involved in a fatal drunk driving accident, talk to your East Bay DUI defense lawyer about your charges and your best defense to avoiding jail time.
Watson Murder DUI in California
In order for the prosecutor to convict someone of murder in California, it must be proven that the defendant acted with “malice aforethought.” If the defendant did not act with malice, then they may be charged with vehicular manslaughter, a lesser crime.
It can be difficult to show a driver was acting with malice aforethought before getting into a fatal car accident. In most cases, the driver did not intend to harm anyone. However, California law provides that malice can be implied by the actions of the driver.
Under California Penal Code §188, malice can be implied when “no considerable provocation appears, or when the circumstances attending the killing show an abandoned and malignant heart.”
“When it is shown that the killing resulted from the intentional doing of an act with express or implied malice as defined above, no other mental state need be shown to establish the mental state of malice aforethought.”
The term “Watson murder,” comes from the California case People v. Watson. In Watson, the California Supreme Court held that malice in a second-degree murder case could be implied through driving under the influence.
Showing Implied Malice in a Fatal DUI Accident
To prove implied malice aforethought in a fatal DUI accident, the prosecutor generally needs to prove the following:
- The driver intentionally drove under the influence of alcohol or drugs,
- The natural and probable consequences of the act were dangerous to human life;
- At the time, the driver knew the act was dangerous to human life; and
- The driver deliberately acted with conscious disregard for human life.
What is the Watson Advisement?
Generally, prosecutors charge drivers with Watson murder in California if the driver had previously been given a so-called “Watson Admonition” or Watson Warning after a prior DUI. As part of a DUI in California, the driver may be required to sign a document, known as a Tahl warning or Tahl waiver. This document provides a statement about the dangers of driving under the influence. This generally includes the following:
“You are hereby advised that being under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or both, impairs your ability to safely operate a motor vehicle. Therefore, it is extremely dangerous to human life to drive while under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or both. If you continue to drive while under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or both, and as a result of that driving, someone is killed, you can be charged with murder.”
The individual has to write “YES” in a box acknowledging understanding the advisement. This acknowledgment may be used in a later fatal DUI accident to show the defendant was aware that impaired driving is dangerous to human life.
Alternatively, attending a California DUI school after a prior drunk driving arrest, or having some specialized knowledge of the dangers of drunk driving could be used to show the defendant was aware of the risks involved in driving under the influence.
Penalties for Fatal DUI After Watson Warning
A conviction for a Watson murder charge can result in second-degree murder. The penalties may include 15 years to life in prison and fines of up to $10,000.
If convicted of gross vehicular manslaughter DUI, the penalties may include up to 10 years in prison.
Vehicular manslaughter DUI can be charged as a felony or misdemeanor. As a misdemeanor, the penalties include up to a year in jail. As a felony, the penalties can include up to 4 years in prison.
Are All Fatal DUIs Charged as DUI Murder in California?
Not all fatal DUIs are charged as a DUI murder in California. Generally, to be charged as murder, the defendant will have a prior DUI or multiple prior DUIs and will have been given the Watson warning. However, other factors may increase the likelihood that a driver will face murder charges, including:
- High BAC (0.15% or above);
- Reckless driving;
- Evading a police officer;
- Hit and run;
- Multiple fatalities;
- Multiple injuries; or
- Prior fatal DUIs or serious injury DUIs.
Defenses to DUI Murder Charges
There may be a number of legal defenses available to charges of second-degree murder for a drunk driving accident. The accident may have been caused by some other driver or other factor and not caused by the defendant. Alternatively, the driver should not be charged if he or she was not over the legal limit or not impaired by alcohol or drugs.
Most car accidents, including DUI accidents, are not intentional. If the driver had no implied malice, no specialized knowledge of the dangers of a DUI, and had no prior DUI, the fatal car accident will likely be charged as manslaughter instead of murder.
Talk to your East Bay criminal defense attorney about your DUI case if you are facing charges for a fatal drunk driving accident in California.
East Bay Criminal Defense Attorney
Lynn Gorelick has more than 36 years of DUI defense experience defending her clients facing misdemeanor and felony DUI charges in the East Bay. She understands how to approach the individual facts of each case for the greatest chance of success, keeping her clients out of jail and keeping a clean record. Whether you are arrested in Fremont, Richmond or anywhere else in Contra Costa County or Alameda County, contact Lynn Gorelick.