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What Triggers a Prosecutor to Charge Murder Related to DUI?

Posted by Ronald D. Hedding, ESQ. | May 23, 2022

In severe cases of driving under the influence causing the death of another person in a car accident, we are often asked what triggers the Los Angeles District Attorney's Office to charge someone with murder?

DUIs are very commonplace in Los Angeles, California, especially with all of the bars and clubs and the vast population drinking and driving — especially on the weekends, people are getting pulled over, arrested, and cited for DUIs.

What Triggers a Prosecutor to Charge Murder Related to DUI?

But there's an interesting trend that's taking place where if you're involved in any DUI accident, and somebody dies, the Los Angeles District Attorney's office will charge you with second-degree murder.

If you get a second-degree murder related to a DUI, you're looking at 15 to life. You've got the added issue that after you serve 85% of 15 years, the parole board still has to grant you a release, and they don't have to do it, so you could end up spending the rest of your life in a California state prison.

A Watson DUI murder in California is the crime of implied malice murder while someone was driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol.  It is a Penal Code 187 PC second-degree murder charge in cases where somebody was killed due to another person's intoxicated driving of a vehicle.

The critical question is whether or not the intoxicated driver acted with implied malice. If that can't be proven, then a Watson murder charge cannot be sustained, meaning the DUI driver would likely be guilty of the lesser offense of:

  • Penal Code 191.5(b) – vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated,
  • Penal Code 191.5(a) – gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated.

To be convicted, the prosecutor has to prove you committed an act causing the death of someone, had a state of mind known as “malice aforethought,” and killed them without lawful justification. Our Los Angeles criminal defense attorneys will examine this topic below.

Will Prosecutors Claim You Are a Danger to the Public?

They're saying that if you don't take precautions and you know you're going to drink alcohol or use drugs and drive, you're killing somebody; we're going to seek a 15 to life year sentence against you.

In other words, if you want to take other people's lives into your hands and be a danger to the public, then we're going to take you off the road for good.  In many of these 15 to life sentences, a person has to serve 85% of 15 years, and then they're just eligible for parole, but they may never get out.

DUI Death Cases in California

When I first started almost 30 years ago, the prosecutors typically wouldn't do this in a DUI death unless the person involved had prior DUIs and had been educated on what happens when you drink and drive – people die.

Now, they do Watson warnings on all of the DUIs where they're warning the person if you drink and drive in the future and you kill somebody, we're going to charge you with Penal Code 187 second-degree murder. Somebody acts with implied malice when they intentionally commit an act that the natural and probable consequences of it are:

  • dangerous to human life,
  • knowing that the act is dangerous to human life, and
  • continuing with the act with reckless disregard for that danger.

The standards for implied malice target the defendant's knowledge and mindset at the time of the act. But even if the person doesn't have one of those warnings – even if the person has no prior criminal record, if they are involved in a DUI, and they kill somebody, the prosecutors in LA county will charge them with second-degree murder.

Often, depending on the circumstances of the case, they will negotiate and give something other than second-degree murder, such as Vehicle Coder 23153 VC DUI causing injury, as long as the person doesn't have any prior DUIs or a prior criminal record. It's not an utterly egregious situation.

Contact a Criminal Defense Professional

So, you need to get an attorney right away.  I've been handling these cases since the early 1990s.  I worked for the district attorney's office and saw how they prosecute them.

California DUI Lawyer

I worked for a superior court judge as his right-hand man to get a feel from the judge's perspective, and then in 1994, I became a criminal defense attorney. I've been defending people charged with murder-related DUIs, so I understand how it works.  I know what the prosecutors argue, and I know what it takes to protect one of these cases.

People can't understand how they or their loved ones are being charged with murder when they didn't intend to kill anybody.

What's happening in the law has created a situation where the malice necessary for murder – in other words, the evil thought, the ill will –is inferred if you drink and drive and somebody drives.

The rationale and policy behind it are that everybody in society knows that you risk getting in an accident and killing somebody if you drink and drive.  If you're going to take people's lives in your hands that way, then the law says, we're going to hold you accountable, and we may charge you with murder, and if we do and you're convicted, you're facing a minimum of 15 to life in prison.

So, if you or a loved one needs the best DUI defense attorney, pick up the phone now.  Ask for a meeting with Ron Hedding.  Let me put my 30 years of experience to work for you – fight for you, fight for your loved one and do everything I can to help you. The Hedding Law Firm is located in Los Angeles County.

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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.