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When Does a DUI Turn into a Murder Case?

Posted by Ronald D. Hedding | Sep 08, 2021

A Watson DUI murder in 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, confirming that driving under the influence defendant acting with implied malice could formally be charged with murder.

Due to the court's ruling on the case, you can be charged with PC 187 murder if you drive under drugs or alcohol and another person is killed due to 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, typically filed as vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, as second-degree murder.

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

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

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 generally 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 usually not a subject of direct evidence. Like other mental state issues, the prosecutor will attempt to prove it using circumstantial evidence that 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 cannot prove this, a California DUI resulting in the death of another person will usually 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 significant 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 many people's minds; if they're involved in an accident, and there's a death involved, 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 DUIs prosecuted because it is such a dense population.

There are a lot of bars, and 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.

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

Their policy is to file a 2nd-degree murder case automatically.  It's unclear how that policy will play out 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

Suppose you or a loved one has been arrested, and you're being charged with either vehicular manslaughter, felony UI, or any death that occurred, often, the police don't know precisely what to arrest people for, and they sometimes will charge vehicular manslaughter. 

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

Then, many 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 firepowers when negotiating.

Mitigation Package Prepared by Defense Lawyer

We like to do that if you are guilty of drinking and driving and driving and death occurred; we want to get a mitigation package together to present to the prosecutors.

This is an attempt to avoid that 2nd-degree murder conviction and show them some other charges 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 many times, juries aren't very sympathetic when it comes to cases where people have drunk alcohol, drove their car, and then death occurs to an innocent person. We 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 charged with felony DUIs and DUIs that resulted in death and murder. 

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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