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What If You’re Involved in a DUI and Someone is Killed?

Posted by Ronald D. Hedding, ESQ. | Feb 07, 2022

This is an interesting question because you were driving under the influence, and death occurred; it doesn't necessarily mean that you can be held responsible for the death. It gets into what we call in the legal field a causation issue.  In other words, are you the one that caused the death?

Sometimes, you could be sitting at a red light, intoxicated, and someone rams you from the back and kills themselves.  That's not going to be your fault, as long as you were doing everything lawful.

They can't blame the death on you because regardless of whether or not you were intoxicated, that person was going to do what they did, and a perfectly sober person, there would have been the same result.

Where it starts to get a little bit more complex when you're trying to figure out who's at fault, the death is, and there's a DUI involved, is when there are multiple causes of an accident and a death results.

Then, the test is whether or not you, the person being charged, typically with second-degree murder under the Watson case, whether you are a substantial factor in the death. Of course, there's a real test for that.  There are jury instructions.

So, that's why if you or a loved one is charged with second-degree murder related to a DUI, you're trying to figure out what to do — trying to figure out if there's any responsibility there or whether or not somebody else is at fault, you've got to get an attorney. Our Los Angeles criminal defense attorneys will review a Watson murder below.

What is a Watson DUI Murder under California Penal Code 187?

A Watson DUI Murder is the California crime of implied malice murder while driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol. As noted, a Watson murder under is a form of second-degree murder charged in cases where someone dies due to another person's intoxicated driving.

Watson DUI Murder in California

The name “Watson” is from a California appellate decision, People v. Watson, that confirmed a DUI defendant acting with implied malice could be charged with murder. In other words, based on this ruling, you can be charged with murder if you drive while under the influence and somebody is killed due to your conduct.

This Watson murder rule allows a prosecutor to charge this crime, usually charged as vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, as second-degree murder is defined under California Penal Code 187. The intoxicant could be either drugs, alcohol, or a combination of both.

The crucial question that must be answered in Watson murder is whether the intoxicated driver acted with implied malice.

If not, then a murder charge can't be supported. The defendant would likely be guilty of the lesser offense of Vehicle Code 191.5(b) VC vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated or Vehicle Code 191.5 VC gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated. To convict you, the prosecution must prove:

  • you committed an act causing the death of another individual,
  • had a state of mind called malice aforethought, and
  • killed without lawful justification.

Malice aforethought can be either express or implied, and the prosecution will usually rely on evidence showing you exhibited implied malice.

What is Implied Malice in California DUI Murder?

The phrase “implied malice” defines a mental state less than an actual intent to kill someone, but still enough blame to charge murder. Someone acts with implied malice when:

  • they intentionally commit an act that the natural and probable consequences of which are dangerous to others,
  • knowing that the act is dangerous to human life, and
  • nevertheless, continuing with the act with reckless disregard for that danger.

The standards for implied malice all go to someone's knowledge and mindset at the time of the conduct. This means they will rarely be the subject of direct evidence.

In other words, the prosecution will attempt to prove through circumstantial evidence the defendant possessed the mental state required to be guilty of murder.

How Can It Be Proven Someone Knew It Was Dangerous to Drink and Drive?

You've got to get someone like me who's been doing this for 30 years and knows how the LA county prosecutor's office and other prosecuting agencies in California have dealt with DUI-related deaths.

And how it has slowly crept into a realm where if you're involved in an accident, and you were using any alcohol, drugs, or substances that impaired your ability to operate a motor vehicle safely, you're going to get charged with second-degree murder right off the top.

It didn't use to be like that.  Before, they were going to try to evaluate whether or not you knew that it was dangerous and could cause death to drink and drive, and they would look to see if you had a prior DUI.

They would bring on evidence from your DUI class if you took one and if you did have a prior DUI to show that you were taught that it's hazardous to drink and drive and somebody could die. Now, they skip right over that part.  When I say they, I'm talking about the prosecutors — and even juries.

Because the argument now is, look, everybody knows from the media, from what's going on, from all of the deaths that have occurred over the years, that it's dangerous to drink and drive.  Period.  So, if you drink and drive and somebody dies as a result of it, you're going to get charged with second-degree murder.

What are the Penalties for a Watson DUI Murder?

Now, sometimes they've got a great case against a person because their blood alcohol level is high, they caused a horrible accident, and somebody died. That doesn't necessarily mean that that person must be convicted of second-degree murder and face 15 to life.

Penalties for a Watson DUI Murder

The prosecutors can negotiate that.  They can offer a resolution for vehicular manslaughter, for example, and come up with a different number than 15 to life if they choose.

In doing so, your attorney will be crucial in trying to convince them to do that.  They're also going to look at your prior criminal record.  They're going to look to see if you have prior DUIs on your record.

A defendant could receive 15 years to life in the California state prison and a $10,000 fine if found guilty. A second-degree Watson Murder is a serious felony, and a conviction will be a “strike” under California's three-strikes law.

Defendants could face an additional sentence of 3 to 6 six years in prison if any surviving victims sustained a great bodily injury described as a significant injury.

How Can the Hedding Law Firm Help You?

The bottom line is when we answer the question of what are you facing when you are involved in a DUI and death occurred, you're facing second-degree murder with 15 to life and never coming out of prison again.  That's the downside.

That's the potential big problem.  But, you could also potentially be facing a lesser sentence depending on your case's circumstances, your criminal record, and of course, the attorney you hire.

So, if you want the best if all the marbles are on the line, and they are if you're charged with second-degree murder, or you were involved in an accident, posted bail, and you're waiting to go to court, you need the best.

Pick up the phone.  Ask for a meeting with Ron Hedding.  Let my experience of 30 years go to work for you. Hedding Law Firm is located in Los Angeles County, and we offer a free case evaluation.

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About the Author

Ronald D. Hedding, ESQ.

Ronald D. Hedding, Esq., is the founding member of the Hedding Law Firm. Mr. Hedding has an extensive well-rounded legal background in the area of Criminal Law. He has worked for the District Attorney's Office, a Superior Court Judge, and as the guiding force behind the Hedding Law Firm. His multi-faceted experience sets Mr. Hedding apart and puts him in an elite group of the best Criminal Defense Attorneys in Southern California.