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When is a DUI Murder in California?

Posted by Ronald D. Hedding, ESQ. | Feb 25, 2022

Unfortunately, a segment of our population ends up getting prosecuted for murder and is facing the rest of its life in prison.  If you get a second-degree murder related to a DUI, you're looking at 15 to life, and then you've got the added problem of after you serve 85% of 15 years, the parole board still has to let you out, and they don't have to do it, so you could end up spending the rest of your life in prison.

When we talk about when DUI is murder, we're talking about politics to a degree, especially at the District Attorney's office in Los Angeles county.

DUI Watson Murder in California

If someone's driving and they're intoxicated with alcohol, marijuana, any other drug — even prescription medication, and they become involved in a situation where somebody dies — maybe it's an accident — perhaps a pedestrian getting ran over — whatever the case may be — now, as I make this post, the Los Angeles County District Attorney's office filed murder charges under those circumstances.

They did not use to.  I've been doing this for nearly 30 years.  They wouldn't charge murder charges in that scenario for a long time unless they could prove that the person knew that it was hazardous to drink and drive and that death could result.

And the way they were proving it is when the person had a prior DUI, and they had to take the classes and everything, and as part of the classes, they were educated and instructed that if you drink and drive, people die.

So, they were calling the teachers of those classes, and they were pulling the records to show the person was in the class, heard that, and that's how they were proving what we call this guilty knowledge. Our Los Angeles criminal defense lawyers will review this topic further below.

What is Implied Malice in DUI Murder?

Implied malice describes a mental state less than actual intent to kill but still blameworthy enough that a murder charge can be supported.  Someone acts with implied malice when they:

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

The standards for implied malice are all related to the defendant's knowledge and mindset at the time of the conduct. As such, they will rarely be subjected to direct evidence.

Instead, like most mental states in criminal cases, prosecutors will attempt to prove their case through circumstantial evidence that the defendant possessed the mental state required to be guilty of murder.

Often, it's challenging for a prosecutor to prove a defendant acted with a conscious disregard for human life. If they can't prove this, a California DUI resulting in someone's death will be charged as:

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

What is Implied Malice?

You have to have the malice of forethought for murder.  So, how do you get that when somebody sets out for their night in a DUI, they don't plan on killing anybody?

Even moments before they kill somebody, they didn't plan on doing it.  The problem is, they've set something up where the law and the prosecutors can use the concept of implied malice.

DUI Murder Defense Lawyer in California

So, we're going to imply the malice and say, look, you should have known that you were probably going to be drinking when you set out.  You should have made the proper arrangements.

You don't drink a bunch of alcohol and get yourself into an intoxicated state and then try to make decisions about whether you're going to drive because when you do that, people die.

Today, they don't do that anymore.  They can, indeed, if you've got a prior DUI, pull the records and prove that you knew or reasonably should have known that you were going to drink and drive and somebody could die, but they don't care about that anymore.

The mentality now is that everybody in society knows that you could kill somebody if you drink and drive. So, when DUI is murder, somebody is drinking alcohol, usually, but not limited to that — any substance can cause you to be intoxicated.

It's just less likely, in my view, that if somebody takes their prescribed medication, has a bad reaction, and ends up running over somebody and killing them, that they're going to get charged with murder.  It's more likely, in my opinion, that the prosecutors in an alcohol scenario where you're drinking and driving are going to charge murder.

What are the Penalties for DUI Murder in California?

A Watson murder carries the same penalties as other second-degree murders in California.  If you are found guilty, the penalties include:

  • 15 years to life in state prison,
  • a fine up to $10,000 fine.
  • a “strike” under California's three-strikes law.

You could face an additional sentence of 3 to 6 six years in state prison if any surviving victims sustained a great bodily injury, which is described as a significant injury. Further, you could also receive an additional year for each person who sustained less severe injuries in the accident.

Seeking a Lesser Charge Than Murder

So, the reality is, if you drink alcohol and drive and you kill somebody, you're going to be charged with murder, at least in LA county and many of the surrounding counties as well.

DUI Lawyer in Los Angeles

So, you're going to need somebody like me who's been doing this for 30 years, who knows that it takes to mitigate a circumstance where somebody has died, trying to get that murder charge out of there and get some other charge in its place that doesn't carry 15 to life.

So, if you want the best, and I think you need the best, if you or a loved one is being charged with murder related to DUI, pick up the phone.  Ask for a meeting with Ron Hedding.

I've been doing this for 30 years.  I've worked for the District Attorney's office.  I've worked for a Superior Court Judge, and I've been defending people charged with murder related to DUIs since the early 1990s. Contact the Hedding Law Firm for a free case evaluation to review the details of your case and legal options.

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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.