If you drive while intoxicated and another person dies due to your actions, the prosecutor can charge you with different crimes. One of these offenses is DUI homicide, while another lesser offense is vehicular manslaughter while Driving Under the Influence. The law treats DUI murder harshly, and without the help of an experienced attorney, your chances of pulling through will be slim. If you are facing DUI murder charges in Los Angeles, don't hesitate to call Law Offices of Jeff Voll for help. Our attorneys have a broader understanding of California DUI laws and will work with you at all times to ensure you get the best possible results. Let's look at what the California DUI homicide law provides.
The Legal Definition of DUI Homicide
DUI Homicide is also referred to as Watson murder. It's a form of California's murder in the second degree. DUI murder is charged when a person with past drunk or drugged-driving conviction, while in the commission of another DUI offense, causes death.
The term ‘'Watson Murder'' originates from the case tried in the Supreme Court of California titled People vs. Watson. In this case, the judge held that DUI could comprise the implied malice required for a conviction of murder in the second degree.
Elements of DUI Homicide
For a prosecutor to convict you of DUI homicide, he/she must prove beyond any doubt that your actions constituted implied malice. The prosecutor will need to demonstrate three facts to show the implied malice in your acts. These are what we call elements of DUI murder. They include:
- You committed a deliberate act (that is DUI of drugs or alcohol) that led to another person's death
- The natural outcome of your action (DUI) was dangerous to people's lives
- You knowingly acted while having a conscious ignorance of the danger that could ensue (in this case, the danger of death)
Note that the intention to kill isn't necessary. Unlike in the offense of murder in the first degree, you don't need to have had the intent to murder the victim for DUI homicide charges to hold. This is what differentiates Watson murder (other types of murders as well in the second degree) from murders in the first degree.
Instead, the prosecution has to prove that your actions constituted implied malice. This means that the prosecuting attorney must show that you consciously ignored the danger that DUI posed to other road users.
It may appear as though every motorist should be aware that drunk or drugged driving can result in death. However, for DUI homicide charge purposes, it usually involves something more than that.
How the Prosecutor Can Establish Implied Malice
For the prosecuting attorney to show implied malice, he/she must usually prove that you had special knowledge of the risks involved with impaired driving. Typically, the prosecutor does this by demonstrating that:
- You read and signed or were read a Watson advisement for a past DUI, or
- You attended a DUI School program that was court-approved for a previous DUI, or
- You had specialized knowledge about the dangers of DUI. For example, perhaps you are a paramedic or law enforcement officer, or any other profession that bears firsthand knowledge of the possible repercussions of DUI
Since the People v. Watson case, any person who is found guilty of drunk or drugged driving in California is issued a “Watson admonition” at his/her sentence hearing. Sometimes, the judge himself/herself reads the admonition to the accused. Or, the judge may ask the defendant to sign a Tahl warning form.
The prosecution will prove that the judge gave you a Watson advisement in relation to past DUI by:
- Admitting into proof a Tahl waiver you signed when you plead guilty, or
- Presenting the official summary of court proceedings that shows the court read you the Watson admonition during sentencing
Attending a DUI School that is court-approved can also justify the implied malice condition for a conviction of Watson murder. The prosecution will present before the court the course records as well as course materials. If it shows that these materials warned you of the dangers that come with drugged/drunk driving, it may establish your implied malice and therefore support a conviction for your offense.
Lately, prosecutors have started charging DUI homicide in broader types of DUI cases. For example, in 2017, a paramedic was accused of murder in the second degree. This is because while drunk driving, the paramedic hit and killed the victim by the roadside. The prosecutor reasoned that since he was paramedic, the accused should have had better knowledge.
Most defense lawyers believed that this was an instance of the prosecution overcharging the offense. A prosecutor may overcharge you to pressure you to agree to a deal like gross vehicular manslaughter. A skilled defense attorney may help you avoid this trap by helping you recognize the situation in which you are.
Characteristics of DUI Homicide Cases
Specific factors are common in most cases of Watson murder in California. These include:
- A defendant had several past convictions of DUI of alcohol or drugs
- An accused had the intent to get behind the wheel after drinking
- A defendant had an extremely high BAC (generally 0.15% BAC at the minimum) while he/she was driving
- An accused operated the vehicle in an extremely reckless manner
- A defendant had special knowledge of the risks involved with driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol (whether because of a past DUI school you attended, a previous Watson advisement given to you, etc.)
If the prosecution cannot establish these facts in your case, it will charge you with vehicular manslaughter while Driving Under the Influence instead.
Penalties for DUI Homicide
Watson murder is punishable by:
- Fifteen years to imprisonment for life in state prison
- A strike on your record under the Three Strikes laws
- A maximum fine of $10,000
A strike on your record leads to a doubled prison time for any future felony crime you commit. And if you have more than two strikes on your record then commit another felony that justifies another strike, you will serve mandatory prison time of twenty-five years to imprisonment for life.
Additional Consequences for Injured Victims
A person convicted of Watson murder faces an additional & consecutive sentence if there're survivors that survived the crash. The additional punishment will be:
- Three to six years for every surviving victim that suffered substantial bodily injury
- One to three years for every victim that sustained less severe injuries
Legal Defenses against DUI Homicide Charges
Generally, the defenses to Penal Code 187, Watson murder fall under four broader categories. The categories involve your lawyer taking the direction that:
You Didn't Drive While Intoxicated
If you didn't drive while intoxicated, you cannot be convicted of DUI homicide. Therefore, a skilled DUI defense attorney needs to try and challenge your arrest and alleged DUI. Ways in which the lawyer could do this is by showing that:
- You were not the motorist when the offense took place
- The lab and police didn't strictly obey the procedures that Title 17 of the Code of Regulations requires
- The DUI breath or blood test results weren't accurate
However, note that the burden isn't on you to show that you didn't drive while drunk. It is the prosecution's burden to establish every element of your crime beyond any reasonable doubt.
The Accident wasn't Your Fault
Regardless of whether you drove while stoned or drunk, it doesn't prove that you caused the crash. An experienced criminal defense attorney will work together with the accident reconstruction expert and establish whatever happened. This may prove that the crash and the resulting fatalities weren't your faults.
Your Actions didn't Constitute Implied Malice
Acting with implied malice is the critical element of DUI murder under Penal Code 187. If the prosecutor can prove this, you can easily be convicted. However, this fact is quite difficult to establish and one that your attorney can challenge easily. Reasons there may be no implied malice in your case include:
- You weren't given or read a Watson advisement in relation to your past DUI
- You didn't complete DUI School program for any previous crime (or the school program didn't include any warning about the dangers associated with DUI)
- You had no special firsthand awareness of the risks that come with DUI
Alternatively, an experienced attorney will try proving that your conduct didn't reach to the extent that would justify a willful disregard for other road users' lives.
There was Prosecutor or Police Misconduct
The fact that your charges are severe doesn't mean the prosecution and police can ignore your constitutional right. In case your lawyer suspects police misconduct, he/she could bring a Pitchess motion. This motion will help him/her obtain the arresting officer's record. And if indeed there was misconduct, the proof the officer obtained will be excluded. This may sometimes lead to the dismissal of the entire case. Or, it could result in the prosecution offering you a plea deal so that you are convicted of a lesser offense like vehicular manslaughter.
Hire a DUI Murder Criminal Defense Attorney Near Me
When you reach out to the Law Offices of Jeff Voll with a DUI case, we will utilize our knowledge and resources to assist you in every possible way we can, so you obtain the best possible results. First, we will evaluate your case, and after getting the facts, we will build a reliable defense strategy. We will also scrutinize the prosecution's evidence and look for a way to thwart it. Clients in the Los Angeles area have trusted in us for a long time to solve their DUI cases, DUI homicide included. For any questions, concerns, or if you have a Watson murder case at hand, please contact us at 323-467-6400.