Driving under the influence of alcohol (DUI) can be fatal. Impaired drivers have a greater risk of getting into an accident and causing serious or fatal injuries. A fatal car accident is a tragedy but the driver never intended to hurt anyone. However, if the driver had a prior drunk driving conviction, a fatal DUI accident can lead to murder charges.
Elements of a Murder Charge
Murder is among the most serious criminal offenses in California. In order for the prosecutor to get a guilty verdict, the prosecutor has to prove the following elements:
- The defendant committed an act that caused the death of another person; AND
- When the defendant acted, the defendant had malice aforethought.
However, malice aforethought can be express or implied. Express malice means the defendant intended to kill someone. Fatal drunk driving generally does not involve express malice because the driver never intended to kill someone. However, impaired driving can be considered a type of implied malice. Implied malice can be demonstrated where the defendant:
- Intentionally committed an act;
- The natural and probable consequences were dangerous to human life;
- At the time, the defendant knew their actions were dangerous to human life; AND
- The defendant deliberately acted with conscious disregard for human life.
A first-time drunk driver may not know the extent of how dangerous impaired driving can be. However, most people convicted of drunk driving in California are given a “Watson advisement,” that can be used to support a murder charge if the driver is later involved in a fatal DUI.
The term “Watson advisement” comes from a California drunk driving case, People v. Watson (1981). In that case, the California Supreme Court held that malice in a second-degree murder case could be implied through driving under the influence.
After a drunk driving arrest, a driver may have to sign a waiver after their Watson warning, that informs the driver about the dangers of drunk driving. Language in the mandatory warning may include:
- You are advised being under the influence impairs your ability to safely operate a vehicle
- Driving under the influence is extremely dangerous to human life
- If you continue to drive under the influence, and as a result, someone is killed, you can be charged with murder
How Often Are Drivers Charged With Murder DUI?
Murder DUI charges are not common. Generally, murder DUI charges involve especially egregious actions, including causing the death of multiple victims, driving at high speeds through residential areas, or multiple prior drunk driving convictions. However, even if the prosecutor does not think they can get a conviction for murder DUI, the defendant may still face vehicular manslaughter charges.
A Watson murder charge can be prosecuted as second-degree murder. The penalties for 2nd-degree murder in California include from 15 years to life in prison. A conviction for gross vehicular manslaughter DUI has possible prison time of up to 10 years. Felony vehicular manslaughter DUI can include up to 4 years in prison.
Do Not Wait for a 2nd DUI or 3rd DUI to Get Help From an East Bay DUI Lawyer
Many people accept a 1st-time DUI conviction without challenging the charges, even if they have a strong legal defense. The penalties for each subsequent drunk driving conviction can be more severe. You may be able to avoid a conviction or have your charges reduced with the help of a local criminal defense lawyer. East Bay attorney Lynn Gorelick has more than 37 years of DUI experience and understands the challenges involved. Contact a local criminal defense lawyer who understands DUI defense strategies and plea bargain negotiations.