Every year, police make more than 150,000 DUI arrests in California. The vast majority of those are misdemeanor drunk driving arrests, and result in fines, fees, DUI school, probation, and sometimes an ignition interlock device. However, sometimes driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs can lead to a felony murder charge and years behind bars. Since 1981, California has recognized the availability of a second-degree murder charge in certain fatal DUI accidents.
In People v. Watson, defendant Robert Watson was driving through Redding after drinking at a bar. He crashed into a Toyota, ejecting three passengers, killing two, including a six-year-old girl. His speed was estimated at approximately 70 miles per hour when he struck the vehicle in a 35 miles per hour zone. Watson's blood alcohol content (BAC) tested at 0.23%, more than twice the legal limit.
The prosecutor charged Watson with two counts of second-degree murder and vehicular manslaughter; however, the judge dismissed the murder counts and the State filed an appeal. On review by the Supreme Court of California, the judges found that a drunk driver could be charged with second-degree murder, and malice may be implied when a defendant “does an act with a high probability that it will result in death and does it with a base antisocial motive and with a wanton disregard to human life.”
Thirty-five years later, prosecutors are still using the Watson enhancement to charge drunk drivers with second-degree murder. In most cases, it is applied to a fatal DUI accident where the driver has a high BAC, has prior DUI convictions, and knows the dangers of drinking and driving. For the past decade, drivers who pleaded guilty to a DUI are given a “Watson advisement,” which informs them that if they drink and drive and kill someone, they may be charged with murder.
A man in Fresno has recently been convicted of a DUI murder. Angelito Amancio Romero was driving down the highway with his girlfriend Jennifer Starr. He drove his van off the highway and hit a tree, killing Starr. Romero's BAC was tested at 0.15%, almost twice the legal limit. Instead of being charged with gross vehicular manslaughter, Romero was charged with second-degree murder due to his prior DUI advisements.
Romero had three prior DUI convictions, in 1990, 1996, and 2008. During his 2008 DUI charge, the judge gave Romero a Watson advisement, telling him that if he drove drunk and killed someone, he would be facing a murder charge. Romero acknowledged that he understood the warning.
During the trial, Romero argued that they crashed because Starr, who was also intoxicated, grabbed the wheel during an argument. However, the jury ultimately found against Romero. He may now be facing 15 years or more in prison.
At the Gorelick Law Offices, attorney Lynn Gorelick has dedicated her legal career to defending drivers charged with a DUI in the East Bay. With more than 30 years of experience, Lynn Gorelick understands how a DUI conviction can affect your future, threaten your job, and how to fight to keep a conviction off your record. If you are facing a DUI, contact the local East Bay DUI defense attorney who understands that you do not have to plead guilty just because you were arrested.