As Fatal DUIs Rise, Current Laws Frustrate Surviving Families

Noting the sharp rise in DUI fatalities across the state, district attorneys from several counties held a joint news conference via Zoom this week. 

Yahoo! News reports that Kern County District Attorney Cynthia Zimmer told attendees that in her county alone there had been a doubling of the number of prosecutions of DUI fatality cases in 2021 compared to those in 2020. According to Zimmer, the number of crashes rose 136 percent.

Zimmer does not believe this sharp rise can be attributed solely to the Covid pandemic, although she believes it plays some role. The DAs in attendance discussed that the public’s current sentiments toward law enforcement and the attitudes of some lawmakers within the state legislature have been more lenient on DUI offenders than in the past.

“Every year, the California legislature does pass new laws that benefit criminals,” Zimmer said. “And after a decade of pro-crime policies, predictably, more innocent lives are lost, including those at the hands of impaired drivers.”

One such law cited on the call was what is known as a Watson’s murder charge. This charge would be applied to first time DUI offenders who get into a fatal crash while impaired. Rather than face a murder charge, a first-time offender would only be facing a vehicular manslaughter charge, which would result in jail time of only a few months.

If a previously convicted DUI driver were to get into a subsequent crash that results in a fatality, the defendant would then be facing a second-degree murder charge. This would have been established by the defendant having signed an acknowledgement that they were aware of the risks of drinking and driving.

In Sacramento County, however, recent legislation would allow even those convicted of multiple DUIs to avoid more serious convictions through a diversion program that would expunge previous convictions from the record and avoid more serious charges..

Assembly Bill 3234 was signed into law by Governor Newsom last year and it took effect January 1, 2021.

The district attorneys on the Zoom call emphasized that contrary to such criminal justice reform bills, they will continue to aggressively prosecute those involved in deadly DUI crashes on behalf of the victims and their families.

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