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When Does a DUI Turn into a Murder Case?

Posted by Ronald D. Hedding | Sep 08, 2021 | 0 Comments

Review of a Watson DUI Murder - California Penal Code 187 

A Watson DUI murder in the state of California is the crime of implied malice murder while someone was driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

It's a Penal Code 187 PC second-degree murder charge in cases where somebody was killed due to another person's intoxicated driving of a vehicle. 

The name “Watson” is from a California appellate decision People v. Watson that confirmed that a driving under the influence defendant acting with implied malice can formally be charged with murder.

Put simply, due the court's ruling on the case, you can be charged with PC 187 murder if you drive under the influence of drugs or alcohol and another person is killed as a result of your behavior.

When Does a DUI Turn into a Murder Case in California?

The Watson murder rule permits a prosecutor to charge someone with this offense, that is typically filed as a vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, as second-degree murder.

The crucial question is whether or not the intoxicated driver acted with implied malice. If it can't be proven, then a Watson murder charge cannot be sustained.

This means the DUI driver would likely be guilty of the lesser offense of:

In order to be convicted, the prosecutor must prove you committed an act causing the death of another person, had a state of mind known as “malice aforethought,” and killed somebody without lawful justification.

Malice aforethought can express or implied, and the prosecution will normally rely on evidence showing that you exhibited implied malice.

To give readers a better understanding of the Watson Murder, our Los Angeles DUI lawyers are reviewing the law more closely below.  

Implied Malice in DUI Murder Cases

“Implied malice” refers to a mental state rather than an intent to kill, but it's still sufficient to support a charge of PC 187 murder in California.

Someone acts with implied malice when they intentionally commit an act that the natural and probable consequences of it are:

  • dangerous to human life,
  • knowing that the act is dangerous to human life, and
  • continuing with the act with reckless disregard for that danger.

Put simply, the standards for implied malice target the defendant's knowledge and mindset at the time of the act.

This means it's normally not a subject of direct evidence, rather like other mental states issues, the prosecutor will attempt to prove it using circumstantial evidence the defendant possessed the required mental state to be convicted of murder.

It's not always easy to prove a defendant acted with a conscious disregard for human life.

As noted above, if they are unable to prove this, a California DUI resulting in the death of another person will normally be charged as either Penal Code 191.5(a), gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, or Penal Code 191.5(b), vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated.

Penalties for DUI Watson Murder in California

A Watson DUI murder conviction will carry the same penalties as other second- degree murders in the state of California. 

If you are convicted, you could receive the following sentence:

  • 15 years to life in the California state prison and
  • a $10,000 fine.

A second-degree Watson Murder is also considered a serious felony offense and a conviction could be a “strike” under California's three-strikes law.   

If a surviving victim suffered a great bodily injury (GBI), you also face an additional sentence of 3 to 6 six years in a California state prison.

When Will a Prosecutor Charge Murder in a DUI Case?

This is a big question on a lot of people's minds, obviously, if they're involved in some sort of an accident and there's a death involved, then they start questioning whether or not they might be charged with murder.

When Will a Prosecutor Charge Murder in a DUI Case?

Especially here in California, and in Los Angeles, the capital of DUIs. There are a lot of DUI's prosecuted because it is such a dense population.

There's a lot of bars, restaurants, especially since everything is opening back up from the Covid virus. 

We're going to see a lot more DUI arrests, and if there's a death involved, you can bet your bottom dollar that the prosecutors will be looking at charging a California Penal Code 187 PC murder case.

The reason they do that is because anytime there's alcohol involved, driving under the influence, or any other narcotic, the prosecutors have a policy over the course of the last five years or so.

Their policy is to automatically file a 2nd degree murder case.  It's unclear how that policy is going to play itself out now with the new head prosecutor in the DA's office, but obviously, you don't want to take any chances.

Initial Arrest by Police – Report Sent to Prosecutors

If you or a loved one has been arrested and you're being charged with either vehicular manslaughter, felony DUI, any type of death occurred, a lot of times, the police don't know exactly what to arrest people for, and they sometimes will charge a vehicular manslaughter. 

The case will then be sent to the prosecutors and once the they get their hands on it, they see that the person was driving under the influence.

Then, a lot of times they will file that Watson or 2nd degree murder against them and then the person will be looking at 15 to life or a 7 to life punishment if convicted of that.

So, that gives the prosecutors a lot of fire power when it comes to negotiating.

Mitigation Package Prepared by Defense Lawyer

What we like to do is, if you are guilty in a drinking and driving and death occurred, we want to get a mitigation package together that we can present to the prosecutors.

This is an attempt to avoid that 2nd degree murder conviction and show them some other charge that might apply to your situation.

Put simply, we are maneuvering to avoid you being in a position where you're facing a murder charge, and ending up having to go to trial.

Los Angeles DUI Watson Murder Defense Lawyer

Because a lot of times juries aren't very sympathetic when it comes to cases where people have drank alcohol, drove their car and then a death occurs to an innocent person. We obviously don't want to be in that position.

So, if you or a loved one has a DUI and there's a chance they're going to file a murder charge or they filed a murder charge, you've come to the right place. 

In 1994, I became a criminal defense attorney and started representing people who were charged with felony DUI's and DUI's that resulted in a death and murder is charged. 

Some of the factors they're going to look at in deciding whether or not someone deserves a murder charge after a DUI is:

  • how fast was the person going?
  • what was the person's blood alcohol level?
  • do they have any prior DUIs on their record?
  • what type of driving were they exhibiting?
  • was the accident their fault?

The list goes on and on, so you've got to have somebody like me who's been doing this for a long time, knows every angle and knows what it takes to help you if you've got a DUI that might turn into a murder case.

Hedding Law Firm is located in Los Angeles County and we offer a free case evaluation at (213) 542-0963.

About the Author

Ronald D. Hedding

What Makes Ronald Hedding Uniquely Qualified To Represent You? I've been practicing criminal defense for almost 30 years and have handled thousands of cases, including all types of state and federal sex crime cases. All consultations are discreet and confidential.


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