This has been a long-standing question for the 30 years I've been defending people charged with DUIs that cause death and who are charged with second-degree murder.
The Los Angeles District Attorney's office, for many years that I've been practicing, used only to charge second-degree murder in a DUI death situation if the individual who is the defendant in the case had a prior DUI and had information about how dangerous it was to drive while under the influence of alcohol that came from their DUI classes.
However, in today's world, if somebody is drinking and driving or using drugs and driving and they kill someone, in my experience, the LA county District Attorney's office charges murder charges right from the beginning because they take the position that everybody in society knows how dangerous it is to drive while you're under the influence under a drug or alcohol or both.
Therefore, if you drive in that condition and kill somebody, they will hit you with a second-degree murder charge.
A California DUI murder charge is called a “Watson murder.” It's a second-degree charge that can be filed if you drive while under the influence of alcohol or drugs and someone is killed due to your conduct.
It can be charged by prosecutors when you have at least one prior DUI conviction and were warned of the safety risks of driving under the influence and committing another DUI that causes an accident resulting in the death of another person.
Implied malice is a legal term that defines a mental state with less than intent to kill but still blameworthy enough that a murder charge could be supported.
Someone acts with implied malice when they intentionally commit an act that the natural and probable consequences of which are dangerous to human life, knowing the act is dangerous, but continuing the act with reckless disregard for that danger. Our Los Angeles DUI lawyers will review this further below.
What is the Watson Admonition?
To ease a prosecutor's burden in proving implied malice in cases of repeat DUI offenders, the criminal courts have made it a standard practice to give a “Watson admonition” to defendants pleading guilty or no contest to driving under the influence offense.
At the time of plea or sentencing, the judge will admonish a defendant that driving under the influence of alcohol, drugs, or both are hazardous to other people's safety.
The judge will further admonish a defendant that if they keep driving under the influence of alcohol, drugs, or both and somebody is killed; they will be charged with murder.
The legal purpose of the Watson admonition is to defeat any argument by a defendant's lawyer in a subsequent Watson murder trial that they were unaware of the danger posed by drunk driving to challenge the implied malice evidence of the prosecution.
This is the primary reason Watson murder charges are usually filed in a case of a repeat DUI offender rather than someone with no prior DUI history before the incident that resulted in death. Also, a prosecutor is more likely to charge someone with Watson's murder when:
- they had a very high blood alcohol content (BAC),
- had multiple prior convictions for driving under the influence,
- engaged in reckless driving, such as excessive speed or felony reckless evading of a police officer.
What Are the Penalties for DUI Murder in California?
Watson's murder carries the same legal penalties as other second-degree murders. If you are convicted, you face:
- 15 years to life in state prison,
- a $10,000 fine, and
- a “strike” under California's three-strikes law.
If any accident survivor sustained a great bodily injury, you could face an additional sentence of 3 to 6 six years in state prison. A GBI is described as a significant injury. Also, you could receive an extra year in prison for each person who sustained less severe injuries.
Why Do You Need the Best Defense Lawyer?
So, if you or a loved one is charged with second-degree murder because of either drinking alcohol and driving and killing somebody or using drugs and killing somebody, and I've even seen them charge second-degree murder when somebody is driving in a wanton, reckless manner and kills somebody.
You need the best because you are potentially facing a sentence of 15 to life in prison, which means you will serve 85% of 15 years before you're even eligible to get out on parole. You may never get out if the parole board decides not to let you out as you come up for parole each year.
Why can they charge these murder charges when someone did not intentionally mean to kill another person? What they're doing is, they're implying malice based on the circumstances. You need malice forethought to be convicted of a murder charge, whether second-degree or first-degree murder.
In a scenario where someone is driving under the influence, and they kill somebody, they're going to imply that malice forethought and really what they're doing is, they're going before the person ever got behind the wheel and saying, look, when you made the decision to use alcohol, or you made the decision to drive recklessly or to use drugs.
You got behind a wheel; that's when we're going to look at whether or not you had malice of forethought. We're not going to look at the time that you were so drunk that you didn't even know what was going on because then we would never be able to convict anybody of a second-degree murder charge.
As you might guess, these are very political times when it comes to driving under the influence of alcohol, drugs or driving recklessly and killing somebody, especially in California – Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, Ventura, Orange County – I've been all over the place – San Bernardino, Riverside.
If you or a loved one is charged with this crime, you need someone like me with 30 years of experience. I've worked for the District Attorney's office, I've worked for a judge, and I've worked for people just like you since the early 1990s. Pick up the phone now. Ask for a meeting with Ron Hedding. The Hedding Law Firm provides a free case consultation by phone, or you can fill out the contact form.