California law has three felony charges that can be used if your DUI causes the death of another person. These include negligent vehicular manslaughter, gross vehicular manslaughter and second degree murder, sometimes called a “Watson murder” in DUI cases. Second degree murder is by far the most serious and carries the most severe punishment.
What is second degree murder?
In common language, “murder” is an intentional act. In the law, it’s not always so clear. In fact, the law has a very complicated definition of murder, and it tries to draw clear lines between murder and manslaughter. The basic difference is that:
- Murder is a death resulting from malicious behavior or a reckless disregard for human life
- Manslaughter is a death resulting from negligence, or carelessness with the safety of others
This is why most DUI deaths are charged as manslaughter. After all, the person who drives while intoxicated doesn’t start their car hoping or wanting to hurt anyone. They aren’t driving intoxicated in order to cause harm. Normally, they’re just trying to get home or have fun and the harm is an accident. In most DUIs, the driver is negligent but had no malicious intent, so “murder” does not apply.
But there is also a difference between first degree murder and second degree murder. In layman’s terms:
- First degree murder is the intentional, planned killing of a human being
- Second degree murder is the unplanned killing of a human being, while acting with “malice”
Malice is a conscious, knowing disregard for human life. And in some circumstances, driving while intoxicated is so clearly a danger to human life that the driver’s behavior counts as malice. Specifically, it counts as implied malice, or a knowing recklessness that is implicit in the driver’s behavior.
Examples of First Degree Murder, Second Degree Murder, and Manslaughter
Here are simple examples using a gun-related death:
- A man drops a gun that he’s carrying. He owns and carries the gun legally. The gun goes off, hits another person, and they die from the injury. Depending on the circumstances, this is an example of negligence, and it would be charged as some form of manslaughter. Alternately, it may just be ruled an accident with no criminal consequences.
- A man owns a gun and begins shooting at a target in his back yard, in a residential neighborhood. Bullets from his gun go through a fence and into a neighboring building, striking a child and killing him. He didn’t plan to kill a child, but his actions are so reckless with human life that it implies a malice in his behavior. He would be charged with second degree murder.
- A man walks into a convenience store, shoots the clerk and takes money from the register. He would be charged with first degree murder.
DUIs are not first degree murder. And not all DUI deaths will count as second degree murder, because not all involve a knowing, malicious recklessness with human life. But some do. These are usually cases that involve a repeat DUI offender, and they’re called Watson murder.
What is a Watson murder and when does it apply to a DUI death?
The name “Watson murder” comes from a famous court case, People vs. Watson, in which the California Supreme Court decided that a DUI offender could be held accountable for murder—but only if they clearly knew that driving intoxicated could cause the death of another person. If they knew this, then their behavior while driving counts as “implied malice” and their crime can be charged as murder.
There are two ways you can fall into this category:
- You were convicted of a previous DUI charge, and signed a document called a Watson advisement. The Watson advisement is a statement that you are aware that driving under the influence can cause injury or death to other people.
- You were convicted of a previous DUI, and attended DUI school. These classes cover the dangers of drunk driving in detail, and make the risks to other people very clear.
In both cases, the reason you can now be charged with second degree murder is because you were specifically warned. Normally, when someone drives under the influence, they aren’t thinking of the risks to other people—so their actions don’t count as malice. But in these two cases, you were specifically warned of the full risks of driving intoxicated. If you then did so again, the law suggests, you acted with malice.
That doesn’t mean you wanted to hurt anyone. This is a legal argument, used by prosecutors to get the maximum possible sentence for DUI offenders. But this small legal point makes a substantial difference in the penalties.
What are the penalties for DUI murder/Watson murder?
The penalties depend on how many people were affected by the accident. All DUI murder convictions result in:
- 15 years to life in state prison
- A fine of up to $10,000
- You will carry felony status, which restricts your rights and can affect your employment, among other factors
The penalties get even more severe if more than one person died, if other people suffered serious injury, or if other aggravating factors were involved.
Second degree murder also counts as a “strike” under California’s Three Strikes system. This means you could get severe extra penalties if it’s your third strike, including the possibility of 25 years to life in prison.
How do I defend against a DUI murder charge?
DUI murder is the single most severe DUI charge on the books. If you have been charged with this crime, it is imperative that you talk to an experienced DUI lawyer immediately.
Your lawyer can make a dramatic difference in the outcome of your case. Some of the most important factors they will use to defend you are:
- Any irregularities in the arrest or any mistakes the police made. These can have a huge impact on a murder case.
- The credibility of the blood test or breath test that shows you were legally intoxicated. Discrediting this test can remove the DUI murder charge from the table.
- Whether you really signed a Watson agreement or if you ever completed your DUI school. If not, the charge of murder does not stand.
- Whether the death was, in fact, your fault. If the other person broke a traffic law or behaved negligently, the fault may not be with you—regardless of intoxication.
These factors cannot win every DUI murder case. But they often get murder reduced to a much lesser charge, something that allows you to make amends and go on with your life. And in some cases, individuals charged with DUI murder are acquitted or have the charges dropped, allowing them to go free.
Have you been charged with DUI? We can connect you with an experienced Los Angeles DUI lawyer and get you a FREE consultation. Fill out the form to the right or call (310) 896-2724 and get your free consultation today.