California DUI Charged as Murder ("Watson Murder")


California DUI murder, also known as "Watson murder," is charged when a defendant who has at least one previous California DUI conviction, and who has been warned of the risks of driving under the influence, commits DUI again--and causes an accident that kills another person.1

DUI murder is not a separate offense. Rather, it's a description of the situation where prosecutors charge a defendant with second-degree Penal Code 187 PC murder for committing a fatal DUI.

Prosecutors usually only charge a DUI defendant with murder if s/he previously has been given a so-called "Watson admonition"--a formal warning that future DUIs could lead to murder charges--or has attended California DUI school.2 

If these conditions aren't met, a defendant in a DUI that caused a death will likely be charged with Penal Code 191.5(a) PC gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated or Penal Code 191.5(b) vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated instead.3

In order to help you better understand California "Watson murder"/DUI murder, 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 at Shouse Law Group.

1. What is "Watson Murder" in California?

"Watson murder" (DUI murder) is not a separate criminal offense in California law. Instead, it is a term referring to a defendant being charged with second-degree murder under California's murder law (Penal Code 187 PC) for causing a fatal accident while DUI.

The phrase "Watson murder" stems from a 1981 California Supreme Court  case called People v. Watson.4 That case established that it is possible for a drunk driver who causes an accident that kills someone to be convicted of murder.

The case of People v. Watson established that people who cause fatal accidents while DUI can be charged with murder.

2. How Do Prosecutors Prove that I am Guilty of a California DUI "Watson Murder"?

In order to convict you of DUI murder (or any second-degree murder) in California, the prosecutor must prove that you acted with "implied malice." This, in turn, requires them to prove three facts (otherwise known as "elements of the crime" of Watson murder):

  1. You committed an intentional act that resulted in someone's death;
  2. The natural consequences of that act are dangerous to human life; and
  3. You knowingly acted with conscious disregard for that danger.5

It should be noted that there is no "intent" to actively kill another person in second-degree murder, which is what distinguishes Watson murder/DUI murder (and other forms of second-degree murder) from first-degree murder.6

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 can make DUI second-degree murder a difficult case to prosecute.

Proving implied malice

There are basically two ways that the District Attorney may attempt to prove that someone acted with implied malice and thus is guilty of second-degree DUI murder. S/he must either:

  1. Prove that the defendant has been given and acknowledged a "Watson" admonition; or
  2. Prove that the defendant has attended a court-approved DUI school.

Both of these require that the person being charged with Watson murder have suffered at least one prior DUI conviction.

A defendant can only be guilty of Watson murder if s/he has at least one previous DUI.

The Watson admonition

Since the Watson case, people who are convicted of a DUI in California either sign or verbally acknowledge what is known as a "Watson advisement" at the time they receive sentencing for drunk driving in California courts.7

When you sign a Watson advisement, you acknowledge that:

  1. It is extremely dangerous to human life to drive while under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs,]; and
  2. If you kill someone while you are DUI, California prosecutors may charge you with murder.8

Acknowledgment 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--and so may be guilty of DUI murder.

The prosecutor in a Watson murder case will:

  1. Introduce at least one of the forms that the defendant signed when s/he pled guilty to a prior DUI (otherwise known as a "Tahl waiver") which contained the Watson admonition; and/or
  2. Introduce the court docket reflecting that the judge verbally gave him/her the Watson advisement at the time s/he was sentenced for the prior DUI.

DUI school

The second way the D.A. in a California DUI murder case may try to show that the defendant had special knowledge about the true dangers of driving under the influence is to introduce evidence that s/he attended California DUI school.

The defendant's having attended DUI school is one way to establish the implied malice necessary for a DUI murder conviction.

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. This can help to establish the element of "implied malice" that is key to a Watson murder conviction.

Common characteristics of Watson murder cases

There are certain facts that are common to most California "Watson murder" cases.  These include:

  • a pre-drinking intent to drive,
  • a high blood alcohol content (BAC),
  • 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.9

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 vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated.

3. What are the Penalties for California DUI Murder?

If you are convicted of DUI second-degree Watson murder, you face the following consequences:

A Watson murder conviction will lead to a state prison sentence.

If there are any surviving victims that suffered great bodily injury as a result of the behavior that led to the DUI murder conviction, you will receive an additional and consecutive DUI penalty of three (3) to six (6) years in prison.13 "Great bodily injury" is defined as a significant or substantial injury.14

On a similar note, if there is more than one surviving victim of the Watson murder who suffers any injury, you face an additional and consecutive one (1)-year sentence for each person, up to three (3) years maximum.15

4. How Do I Fight California "Watson Murder" Charges?

According to Santa Ana DUI defense attorney John Murray16:

"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 fighting charges of any DUI, including DUI murder, 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 to help fight your Watson murder charges is the accident. Your criminal defense lawyer will work with an accident reconstruction expert to reconstruct the scene and prove that the accident--and resulting deaths--were not your fault.

The third approach that your California drunk driving defense attorney may take in your Watson murder case is to deny your implied malice. If your attorney can prove that

  1. your prior DUI conviction(s) were so old that you were never given a "Watson" admonition, and/or
  2. 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 DUI murder.

Call us for help . . . 


If you or loved one is charged with DUI murder (Watson murder) and you are looking to hire an attorney for representation, we invite you to contact us at Shouse Law Group. We can provide a free consultation in office or by phone. We have local offices in Los Angeles, the San Fernando Valley, Pasadena, Long Beach, Orange County, Ventura, San Bernardino, Rancho Cucamonga, Riverside, San Diego, Sacramento, Oakland, San Francisco, San Jose and throughout California.

To learn about Nevada DUI with Death laws, go to our article on Nevada DUI with Death laws.

Additional Resources:

Alcoholics Anonymous -  Offers 12-step programs and other resources to help those who suffer from alcohol addiction.

Narcotics Anonymous - Offers 12-step programs and other resources to help those who suffer from drug addiction.

Legal References:

    1. People v. Watson (1981) 30 Cal.3d 290.
    2. California Penal Code 187 PC - Murder [including DUI murder/Watson murder] defined. ("(a) Murder is the unlawful killing of a human being, or a fetus, with malice aforethought.")

      See also Judicial 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: [1] (He/She) intentionally committed an act; [2] The natural and probable consequences of the act were dangerous to human life; [3] At the time (he/she) acted, (he/she) knew (his/her) act was dangerous to human life; AND [4] (He/She) deliberately acted with conscious disregard for (human/ [or] fetal) life.")

    3. California Penal Code 191.5 PC -- Vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated [may be charged instead of DUI murder/Watson murder].
    4. People v. Watson (1981) 30 Cal.3d 290
    5. Judicial Council Of California Criminal Jury Instruction 520 -- Murder With Malice Aforethought [used in connection with a California Watson murder charge], endnote 2 above.
    6. People v. Gonzales (1970) 4 Cal.App.3d 593, 602.  ("'Conviction of [California] second degree murder including DUI 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.'")
    7. The Watson admonition which is key to a DUI murder/Watson murder case and 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."
    8. See same. 
    9. People 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 pre-drinking intent to drive; (3) knowledge of the hazards of driving while intoxicated; and (4) highly dangerous driving.")
    10. California Penal Code 190 PC -- Punishment for murder [including Watson murder/DUI 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.")
    11. California Penal Code 672 PC -- 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.")
    12. California Penal Code 667.5 PC -- 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 [including DUI murder/Watson murder]...")

      See also California Penal Code 667 PC -- 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.")

    13. California Penal Code 12022.7 PC -- Terms of imprisonment for persons inflicting great bodily injury while committing or attempting felony [including DUI murder/Watson murder].  
    14. See same.
    15. California Vehicle Code 23558 VC -- Causing bodily injury or death to more than one victim while driving in violation of specified sections; felony convictions [including Watson murder convictions]; enhancement of punishment.  
    16. Santa Ana DUI defense attorney John Murray represents clients accused of committing DUI murder and other DUI offenses at the Ventura Hall of Justice, the Van Nuys courthouse, the Pasadena courthouse, the Burbank courthouse, the Glendale courthouse, the Lancaster courthouse, the San Fernando courthouse, and the Criminal Courts Building.




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