A Watson murder is a type of DUI murder charge. It comes from the California Supreme Court case, People v. Watson.1 Law enforcement can file second-degree murder charges against drivers who were under the influence of drugs or alcohol when they caused a fatal crash, and who acted with implied malice.
The penalties of a conviction for a Watson murder are:
between 15 years and life in a California state prison,
Express malice is the mental state of specifically intending to kill the victim. It is required for first-degree murder charges. Implied malice is acting with a conscious disregard for human life. It is required for second-degree murder charges.4 This includes Watson murder charges.5 If there is no malice aforethought, the defendant may be liable for manslaughter, but not murder.
To prove implied malice for a Watson murder charge in California, law enforcement has to show 4 things:
the defendant intentionally drove under the influence of drugs or alcohol,
the natural consequences of that act were dangerous to human life,
the defendant knew that his or her actions were dangerous to human life, and
the defendant knowingly acted with a conscious disregard for that danger.6
It is not easy to prove that the defendant’s drunk driving was an act of implied malice. Prosecutors often use the following facts to do it:
the defendant attended DUI school for a prior DUI conviction,
the defendant was read a “Watson admonition” or signed one during an earlier DUI case, or
the defendant’s background gave him or her a heightened knowledge or awareness of the dangers of driving while intoxicated.
Any of these factors can be used to show that the defendant knew of the dangers, but consciously disregarded them.
If the defendant attended DUI school as a part of an earlier DUI conviction, the course materials can be used to show that the defendant knew of the risks of drunk driving. The fact that the defendant drove, anyway, insinuate that he or she disregarded those risks. This can satisfy the “conscious disregard of life” that is necessary to prove implied malice.
This can also be done with evidence that the defendant was given a “Watson admonition” during an earlier DUI case. A Watson admonition, or Watson advisement, is a form that says that the defendant understands the grave risks of driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs. It also states that the defendant understands that he or she can be charged with murder if a subsequent DUI accident leads to a fatality. The judge will usually read the Watson admonition to the defendant at their sentencing hearing in a DUI case. Prosecutors will use a prior Watson admonition to show that the defendant knew of the risks and the potential for a murder charge.
California district attorneys have also used a DUI defendant’s background or special awareness against them in Watson murder cases. If the defendant should know the risks of drunk driving better than the general public, it can be used to show that they consciously disregarded those risks.
For example: On his night off, an emergency medical technician (EMT) goes out drinking. While driving home, he hits another motor vehicle and kills the driver. Prosecutors charged him with Watson murder because EMTs “should have known better” than to drive drunk.7
Are there other forms of DUI murder?
There are several forms of DUI murder in California. Watson murder charges are the most severe. Other DUI cases that involve a fatality can be charged as either:
Vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated covers drivers who were under the influence and behaved negligently, leading to the death of another person. This offense is a wobbler in California. It can be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony. The penalties of a misdemeanor conviction are up to:
1 year in county jail, and/or
$1,000 in fines.
If charged as a felony, convictions carry up to:
4 years in state prison, and/or
$10,000 in fines.
Gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated covers fatal crashes involving DUI and an act of gross negligence. These charges are always a felony. Convictions carry:
a state prison sentence of 4, 6, or 10 years, and/or
up to $10,000 in fines.
However, if the driver has a prior conviction for certain DUI offenses, the prison sentence increases to 15 years to life.
Regardless of whether a defendant has been charged with Watson murder or one of these forms of manslaughter, having legal representation is essential. Drivers should strongly consider hiring a California DUI defense lawyer from a reputable law firm.
A former Los Angeles prosecutor, attorney Neil Shouse graduated with honors from UC Berkeley and Harvard Law School (and completed additional graduate studies at MIT). He has been featured on CNN, Good Morning America, Dr Phil, The Today Show and Court TV. Mr Shouse has been recognized by the National Trial Lawyers as one of the Top 100 Criminal and Top 100 Civil Attorneys.