It may seem extreme, but there are certain scenarios where a person who is accused of causing a fatal drunk driving accident may face murder charges. This happened to a Southern California man last week, in connection with the deaths of two Caltrans workers.
The 25-year-old man was convicted of second degree murder amongst other charges, and was subsequently sentenced to 34 years to life in prison. His conviction came from a 2012 accident in a Torrance, CA construction zone. According to prosecutors, the man was driving his Ford Explorer 90 miles per hour through the construction zone early in the morning of July 22, 2012, when he lost control of his vehicle and struck another SUV. The other vehicle spun out of control and struck the two Caltrans workers, also injuring a third worker.
Prosecutors alleged that the man had a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.21% at the time of the accident, which is well over twice the legal limit to operate a motor vehicle in California.
Why would this man face murder charges for causing a fatal auto accident while under the influence of alcohol? In most cases such as this, a driver would be at risk of facing vehicular manslaughter charges, which are less serious and recognize the fact that the incident was unintentional, though it may have stemmed from reckless or illegal behavior. In this particular case, this was not the defendant's first DUI conviction.
Prior DUI convictions, particularly for DUI causing injury or similarly serious offenses, may greatly increase the severity of charges and penalties that a defendant faces for a current offense. This can have a tremendous influence on current charges, even allowing such charges to escalate to second degree murder because of a landmark case, People v. Watson (1981) 30 Cal. 3rd 290.
Under California Penal Code § 187, murder is defined as an "unlawful killing of a human being, or a fetus, with malice aforethought." Though many would associate murder with an intentional and/or premeditated killing, with express malice aforethought, there are situations where implied malice may be sufficient to support a murder charge.
In People v. Watson, the court found that implied malice may apply in fatal DUI cases, therefore supporting second degree murder charges. Implied malice may be considered present, according to California Penal Code § 188, "when no considerable provocation appears, or when the circumstances attending the killing show an abandoned or malignant heart." Prior DUI convictions and other cases where drivers show what may be considered implied malice aforethought may accordingly support second degree murder charges, whereas gross negligence would only support vehicular manslaughter charges.
What is the difference between gross negligence and implied malice? The distinction between the two can be difficult to discern, and the prosecution will have the duty of proving beyond all doubt that a defendant has acted with implied malice to secure a second degree murder conviction following a fatal DUI accident. Gross negligence can be defined as acting in a negligent way that causes a high risk of death or serious bodily injury, with the knowledge that such actions can cause this level of harm. Implied malice is a step above, involving convicted DUI defendants who should have the knowledge that driving under the influence can cause death or serious bodily harm and yet continue to do so.
The man in the case discussed above found out the hard way that driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs can lead to murder charges and the possibility of a lifetime behind bars. If you have been arrested in connection with an auto accident and have been accused of DUI, you need to move quickly to involve an attorney who can protect your rights.
At the Law Offices of Virginia L. Landry, we represent drivers across Orange County in the face of the most serious DUI charges. If you want to find out how we can help you, please call for a confidential case review with one of our legal professionals.