Someone can be prosecuted for murder in California if he drives while intoxicated and causes an accident that kills another person.
DUI second-degree murder (otherwise known as a "Watson murder") is the most serious of the California felony DUI charges.1 Unlike Penal Code 191.5 PC vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated...which involves ordinary or gross negligence2...Watson murder involves allegations of implied malice or malice aforethought. Simply put, "malice aforethought" means a conscious disregard for human life3.
In order to better understand this California DUI felony offense, our Los Angeles DUI defense attorneys will address the following topics:
If, after reading this article, you have additional questions, we invite you to contact us.
You may also find helpful information in our related articles on California Felony DUI Charges, Penal Code 187 Murder, Penal Code 191.5 California Vehicular Manslaughter While Intoxicated, Penal Code 191.5(a) Gross Vehicular Manslaughter While Intoxicated, and DUI Penalties.
The phrase "Watson murder" stems from the 1981 California Supreme Court case, People v. Watson.4 That case basically created the crime of second-degree murder used in connection with driving under the influence. It set the stage for drunk drivers who cause an accident that kills someone to be convicted of Penal Code 187 murder5.
Since that landmark case, people who are convicted of a DUI either sign or verbally acknowledge what is known as a "Watson advisement" at the time they receive sentencing for drunk driving in California courts.6
In essence, when you sign a Watson advisement, you acknowledge that
- it is extremely dangerous to human life to drive while under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs, and
- if you kill someone while you are DUI, California prosecutors may charge you with murder.7
In order to convict you of DUI murder in California , the prosecutor must prove the following three facts (otherwise known as "elements of the crime")8:
- the death resulted from an intentional act,
- the natural consequences of that act are dangerous to human life, and
- you knowingly acted with conscious disregard for that fact.
It should be noted that there is no "intent" to actively kill another person in second-degree murder, which is what distinguishes DUI homicide from first-degree murder.9
Although it may seem like the facts listed above wouldn't be that difficult for the prosecution to prove, it's the third one that makes DUI second-degree murder a difficult case to prosecute.
This is because your mental state becomes the critical issue. Proving that you acted with "implied malice"...a conscious disregard for human life...is difficult, which is why DUI murder is less frequently charged than Penal Code 191.5(a) gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated.10
Proving implied malice
There are basically two ways that the District Attorney may attempt to prove that someone acted with implied malice: by showing (1) that he acknowledged the "Watson" admonition, and (2) that he attended a court-approved DUI school. Both require that the person suffered at least one prior DUI conviction.
The Watson admonition
Acknowledgement of the "Watson" admonition is the first fact that the prosecutor will use to prove that someone had special knowledge about the dangers involved with drinking and driving.
The prosecutor will:
- introduce at least one of the forms that the defendant signed he pled guilty to a prior DUI (otherwise known as a "Tahl waiver") which contained the Watson admonition, and/or
- introduce the court docket reflecting that the judge verbally gave him the Watson advisement at the time he was sentenced for the prior DUI.
The second way the D.A. will try to show that someone had special knowledge about the true dangers of driving under the influence is to introduce evidence that he attended California DUI school.
California DUI school is routinely imposed in connection with a DUI probation sentence. The prosecutor will rely on this education to prove that the person was explicitly warned about the risks involved with drunk driving...and will introduce the course materials and course records to verify this claim.
If you are convicted of DUI second-degree Watson murder, you face the following sentence:
- fifteen years to life in the California State Prison11,
- a fine of up to $10,00012, and
- a strike on your record under California's Three Strikes Law.13
If there are any surviving victims that suffered great bodily injury as a result of the DUI offense, you will receive an additional and consecutive DUI penalty of three to six years in prison.14 "Great bodily injury" is defined as a significant or substantial injury.15
On a similar note, if there is more than one surviving victim who suffers any injury, you face an additional and consecutive one-year sentence for each person, up to three years maximum.16
When a California "Watson murder" is actually charged, the case will be zealously prosecuted with no holds barred. An experienced California DUI defense attorney is critical to prevailing in this type of case.
The first step that your California DUI defense lawyer will take when defending any DUI is to question your perceived impairment, which includes challenging
- all of the procedures that took place during your DUI investigation and arrest, and
- the accuracy of any chemical blood or breath test results.
The second issue your drunk driving attorney will explore is the accident. Your criminal defense lawyer will work with an accident reconstruction expert to reconstruct the scene of the accident to prove that the accident...and resulting death(s)...were not your fault.
The third approach that your California drunk driving defense attorney will take (when applicable) is to deny your implied malice. If your attorney can prove that
- your prior DUI conviction(s) were so old that you were never given a "Watson" admonition, and/or
- that you never completed a DUI school and therefore weren't warned about the serious risks associated with driving under the influence,
then you are less likely to be convicted of second degree murder.
Common characteristics of Watson murder cases
There are certain facts that are common to most California "Watson murder" cases. These include17:
- a pre-drinking intent to drive,
- a high blood alcohol content (BAC)18,
- extremely reckless driving, and
- first-hand knowledge about the risks involved with driving while intoxicated, which was gained because the defendant suffered,
- multiple California DUI convictions.
If any of these facts are lacking, you will most likely be acquitted of DUI second-degree murder and/or convicted of the less serious offense of Penal Code 191.5 PC vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated.
If you would like more information or would like to confidentially discuss your case with one of our California DUI defense lawyers, we invite you to contact us.
We have local DUI law offices in Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay area, San Jose, Ventura, Orange County, Riverside, San Bernardino, and many surrounding areas.
To learn about Nevada DUI with Death laws, go to our article on Nevada DUI with Death laws.
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1There are three California felony DUI charges that involve death. These include second degree murder (otherwise known as Watson murder), gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, and vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, which are listed by the seriousness of the offense and respective penalties.
2California Penal Code 192.5 -- Gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated. ("(a) Gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated is the unlawful killing of a human being without malice aforethought, in the driving of a vehicle, where the driving was in violation of Section 23140, 23152, or 23153 [California DUI]of the Vehicle Code, and the killing was either the proximate result of the commission of an unlawful act, not amounting to a felony, and with gross negligence [italics added], or the proximate result of the commission of a lawful act that might produce death, in an unlawful manner, and with gross negligence. (b) Vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated is the unlawful killing of a human being without malice aforethought, in the driving of a vehicle, where the driving was in violation of Section 23140, 23152, or 23153 [DUI] of the [California] Vehicle Code, and the killing was either the proximate result of the commission of an unlawful act, not amounting to a felony, but without gross negligence [italics added], or the proximate result of the commission of a lawful act that might produce death, in an unlawful manner, but without gross negligence.")
3Judicial Council Of California Criminal Jury Instruction 520 -- Murder With Malice Aforethought [used in connection with a California Watson murder charge]. ("The defendant acted with implied malice if:  (He/She) intentionally committed an act;  The natural and probable consequences of the act were dangerous to human life;  At the time (he/she) acted, (he/she) knew (his/her) act was dangerous to human life; AND  (He/She) deliberately acted with conscious disregard for (human/ [or] fetal) life.")
4People v. Watson (1981), 30 Cal.3d 290
5 California Penal Code 187 - Murder defined. ("(a) Murder is the unlawful killing of a human being, or a fetus, with malice aforethought.")
6The Watson admonition which is on all DUI plea Tahl waiver forms states "I understand that being under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or both, impairs my ability to safely operate a motor vehicle, and is extremely dangerous to human life to drive while under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or both. If I continue to drive while under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or both, and as a result of my driving, someone is killed, I can be charged [in California] with murder."
8See endnote 2, above.
9People v. Gonzales (1970), 4 Cal.App.3d 593, 602. ("'Conviction of [California] second degree murder requires no proof of premeditation or even of actual intent to take life; rather, the malice (intent) necessary to constitute second degree murder may be implied from commission of an unlawful act without sufficient provocation 'or when the circumstances attending the killing show an abandoned and malignant heart.'")
10See endnote 1, above.
11California Penal Code 190 -- Punishment for murder... ("Except as provided in subdivision (b), (c), or (d), every person guilty of [California] murder in the second degree shall be punished by imprisonment in the state prison for a term of 15 years to life.")
12California Penal Code 672 -- Offenses for which no fine prescribed; fine authorized in addition to imprisonment. ("Upon a conviction for any crime punishable by imprisonment in any jail or prison, in relation to which no fine is herein prescribed [such as a California DUI second degree murder charge], the court may impose a fine on the offender not exceeding one thousand dollars ($1,000) in cases of misdemeanors or ten thousand dollars ($10,000) in cases of felonies, in addition to the imprisonment prescribed.")
13California Penal Code 667.5 -- Prior prison terms; enhancement of prison terms for new offenses. ("(c) For the purpose of this section, "violent felony" shall mean any of the following: (1) Murder...") See also
California Penal Code 667 -- Habitual criminals; enhancement of sentence; amendment of section (otherwise known as California's Three Strikes Law). ("(b) It is the intent of the Legislature in enacting subdivisions (b) to (i), inclusive, to ensure longer prison sentences and greater punishment for those who commit a felony and have been previously convicted of serious and/or violent felony offenses.")
14California Penal Code 12022.7 -- Terms of imprisonment for persons inflicting great bodily injury while committing or attempting felony. ("(a) Any person who personally inflicts great bodily injury on any person other than an accomplice in the commission of a felony or attempted felony shall be punished by an additional and consecutive term of imprisonment in the state prison for three years. (b) Any person who personally inflicts great bodily injury on any person...which causes the victim to become comatose due to brain injury or to suffer paralysis of a permanent nature, shall be punished by an additional and consecutive term of imprisonment in the state prison for five years...(c) Any person who personally inflicts great bodily injury on a person who is 70 years of age or older...shall be punished by an additional and consecutive term of imprisonment in the state prison for five years. (d) Any person who personally inflicts great bodily injury on a child under the age of five years...shall be punished by an additional and consecutive term of imprisonment in the state prison for four, five, or six years. (e) Any person who personally inflicts great bodily injury under circumstances involving domestic violence...shall be punished by an additional and consecutive term of imprisonment in the state prison for three, four, or five years.")
15See same, subdivision "f". ("(f) As used in this section, "great bodily injury" means a significant or substantial physical injury.")
16California Vehicle Code 23558 -- Causing bodily injury or death to more than one victim while driving in violation of specified sections; felony convictions; enhancement of punishment. ("A person who proximately causes bodily injury or death to more than one victim in any one instance of driving in violation of Section 23153 [California DUI with injury] of this [California Vehicle] code...receives an enhancement of one year in the state prison for each additional injured victim. The enhanced sentence provided for in this section shall not be imposed unless the fact of the bodily injury to each additional victim is charged in the accusatory pleading and admitted or found to be true by the trier of fact. The maximum number of one year enhancements that may be imposed pursuant to this section is three.")
17People v. Autry (1995), 37 Cal.App.4th 351, 358. ("Since Watson, numerous cases have upheld drunk driving murder convictions. ( People v. Olivas (1985) 172 Cal.App.3d 984 [218 Cal.Rptr. 567]; People v. Albright (1985) 173 Cal.App.3d 883 [219 Cal.Rptr. 334]; People v. McCarnes (1986) 179 Cal.App.3d 525 [224 Cal.Rptr. 846]; People v. Brogna (1988) 202 Cal.App.3d 700 [248 Cal.Rptr. 761]; People v. Murray (1990) 225 Cal.App.3d 734 [275 Cal.Rptr. 498]; People v. David, supra, 230 Cal.App.3d 1109.) As recently summarized in People v. Talamantes (1992) 11 Cal.App.4th 968, 973 [14 Cal.Rptr.2d 311], these cases have relied on some or all of the following factors in upholding such [second degree Watson murder] convictions: (1) blood-alcohol level above the .08 percent legal limit; (2) a predrinking intent to drive; (3) knowledge of the hazards of driving while intoxicated; and (4) highly dangerous driving.")
18Although this is a common characteristic to Watson murder cases, a second degree DUI charge could also be alleged against an individual who refused to submit to a chemical blood or breath test.