Prior to 1981, killing someone in a DUI accident didn’t lead to murder charges, but that all changed with the People v. Watson. In that case, the drunk driver was charged with second-degree murder after he killed someone in a drunk driving crash.
Up until that point, DUIs resulting in death were typically charged as vehicular manslaughter (vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated under Section 191.5 of the California Penal Code).
Until this landmark case, DUI fatalities were considered accidents resulting from the driver's carelessness. But since the People v. Watson, under certain circumstances, a DUI that results in the death of another can be charged as second-degree murder, punishable by 15 years to life in state prison.
Since the time of People v. Watson, all defendants facing DUI charges must be informed of what is now called the "Watson Advisement." This advisement informs the defendant that they could be charged with murder if they drive under the influence in the future and take someone else’s life.
When a DUI defendant signs the Watson Advisement, he or she is acknowledging the fact that driving under the influence endangers human life, and they have been informed of the risks. For example, “John” is prosecuted for a simple first DUI, but he’s required to sign the Watson Advisement.
Five years later John is drunk driving and he kills the driver of another vehicle in a drunk driving crash. Since he signed the Watson Advisement and acknowledged that he knew the risks of drunk driving, now he can be charged with second-degree murder.
Proving DUI Murder in Orange County
How is proving DUI murder different than DUI manslaughter? In People v. Watson, the prosecutors established the following facts that are now standard for "Watson murder" cases. Those are:
- The victim died as the result of the defendant's intentional act(s),
- The defendant knew or should have known the consequences of their chosen actions were dangerous to human life, and
- The defendant knew what they were choosing to do was life-threatening, yet did it anyway.
A Watson murder can only be appropriate if the prosecutor can show that there was implied malice on behalf of the defendant. For this to be the case, the defendant usually needs a prior DUI conviction. The state views this as evidence that the defendant knew that driving under the influence was wrong.
There are many consequences of being convicted of a felony DUI of this nature. First of all, the prison time is lengthier than with charges like DUI manslaughter or another type of felony DUI such as multiple DUI convictions. The state can impose fines up to $10,000. Additionally, a violent felony will warrant a strike on your record under California's "Three Strikes Law."