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DUI Homicide: Vehicular Manslaughter While Intoxicated & Watson Murder

If you drove while under the influence of drugs or alcohol, and someone died as a result of your conduct, there are a range of crimes you might have been charged with.  If you were under the influence, but were not at fault for the accident, you may have simply been charged with a DUI.  However, depending on the severity of your cases, if a death resulted from your accident, you likely have been charged with Vehicular Manslaughter While Intoxicated and/or Second Degree Murder. 

If you find yourself in this situation, you may be extremely overwhelmed.  The charges you face are serious and can be life altering.  It is highly recommended that you consult with an attorney as soon as possible to ensure that your rights are being protected. This article will provide information on some of the charges you might be facing, and what you can expect moving forward.   

At the San Diego DUI Attorney Law Firm, we understand how to help you through this difficult process.  Our attorneys have decades of experience, and have the resources to treat your case with the attention it deserves.  If you think we can be of service to you, contact the San Diego DUI Attorney Law Firm today for your FREE DUI consultation. 

The “Simple” DUI 

If an injury, or homicide, occurred during your accident, it is unlikely that you were charged only with a common DUI.  Typically, DUI incidents that result in injury or death will result in charges of DUI Causing Injury, Vehicular Manslaughter While Intoxicated, or Second Degree Murder.  However, in order to be convicted of these greater offenses, the prosecution will have to first prove the elements of a common DUI.  Further, in some cases, your charges may be able to be reduced to a Simple DUI.  Therefore, it is important to somewhat familiarize yourself with general DUI law.

To be found guilty of a DUI, the Prosecutor must prove the following beyond a reasonable doubt:

  1. You were operating a motor vehicle; and
  2. While operating the vehicle:
    1. You had a Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) of over .08%,
    2. Your driving was impaired by alcohol, or
    3. Your driving was impaired by drug use

If each of these elements can be proven, you will likely be convicted of DUI under California Vehicle Code 23152.  Common DUI penalties include jail/prison time, probation, fines, a license suspension, and/or completion of drug/alcohol programs.  However, there are a number of defenses that can be argued to prevent the prosecution from proving their case.  In some cases, we will be able to challenge that you were the driver of the vehicle, or may be able to prove that you were not actually under the influence of drugs or alcohol.  If this is the case, the charges against you may be dropped.

Vehicular Manslaughter While Intoxicated – California Penal Code 191.5

If a homicide did occur during your DUI accident, it is likely that you have been charged with the greater offense of Vehicular Manslaughter While Intoxicated (VMWI).  Depending on the severity of the case, VMWI can be brought as either a misdemeanor or a felony.  To be convicted, in addition to the elements of a Simple DUI, the prosecution will also have to prove that you caused the homicide.  This requires a showing of some negligent or illegal behavior, in addition to driving under the influence (speeding, running a stop sign, etc.).  In other words, simply being in a DUI accident that results in death is not enough.  Often time, the person at fault for an accident is not the intoxicated party.  In such cases, the intoxicated party should not be guilty of manslaughter.   

In these cases, law enforcement officials sometimes wrongfully assume that the intoxicated party is culpable.  Based on this false assumption, investigations and police reports may contain an unfair bias.  For this reason, our team uses an independent accident reconstruction expert, to ensure the cause of the accident is accurately determined.  If the accident was actually caused by a third party, or by the victim, a VMWI conviction is not appropriate.  

If you are convicted of misdemeanor VMWI, you face a sentence of up to one year in county jail.  If convicted of felony VMWI, you could receive a penalty of up to 4 years in prison. 

Second Degree Murder – “Watson Murder” – California Penal Code 187

The most serious DUI charge is commonly referred to as a “Watson Murder”.  The name comes from the 1981 California Supreme Court case, People v. Watson, which established that a second degree murder conviction could be appropriate in a DUI accident.

When most people think of “murder”, they think of intentional killings.  Because DUI accidents do not typically involve any intent, people are often surprised that they may be facing murder charges after a DUI accident.  To understand California’s Watson Murder, it is important to have a general understanding murder law.  

In California, murder is defined a the “the unlawful killing of a human being with malice aforethought.”

Malice Aforethought

All crimes generally require some act, accompanied by some state of mind.  Essentially, in a murder case, the killing of a human being is the required act, and malice aforethought is the required mental state.  Understanding “malice aforethought” can be somewhat tricky, as it can be established in a number of different ways.  The simplest way to break down malice aforethought, is to separate it into two categories: Express Malice and Implied Malice.

Express Malice means that the defendant actually intended to kill the victim.  On the other hand, even if the defendant did not intent to kill the victim, Implied Malice can still be found if:

  • If the killing resulted in an intentional act;
  • If the natural and probable causes of the act were dangerous to human life; and
  • The act was performed with knowledge of its danger to human life.

First Degree vs. Second Degree Murder

In California, murder is divided into varying degrees for the purpose of sentencing (First Degree or Second Degree).  The two degrees correlate to the type of intent the defendant acts with.  Both First and Second Degree Murder require a showing of malice aforethought.   

There are two main ways to be convicted of First Degree Murder:

  • Intentional Killings
  • Murder during the commission of an independent, and inherently dangerous felony (felony murder).

Neither of these would be applicable in a DUI accident case.  Second Degree Murder encompasses all other murders.  As such, Watson Murders fall into this category.

To recap, Murder is the unlawful killing of another human being with malice aforethought.  A “Watson Murder” involves implied malice, and falls into the category of second degree murder.   

Watson Murder

The most serious DUI charge is commonly referred to as a “Watson Murder”.  The name comes from the 1981 California Supreme Court case, People v. Watson, which established that a second degree murder conviction could be appropriate in a DUI accident.

Typically, a Watson Murder will be charged if it can be proven you have already been warned, and are therefore aware, of the dangers associated with driving under the influence.  As such, we usually see Watson Murder charges if the defendant already has previous DUI incidents.  This is because, as mentioned above, Watson Murders require a showing of implied malice.  Defendants who do have prior DUI convictions likely have been issued what’s known as a “Watson admonition”.  As discussed below, this admonition formally warns the defendant that later DUI incidents could lead to second degree murder charges.  These formal warnings can be used by the prosecution to show that the defendant was in fact aware of the risks associated with driving under the influence.  Presence of a Watson admonition is often the deciding factor between a Second Degree Murder charge, and a Vehicular Manslaughter While Intoxicated charge. 

In order for the court to convict you of second-degree murder using the Watson Murder rule, prosecutors must prove 3 things:

  1. You committed an intentional act that caused the death of another person;
  2. The natural consequences of that act are dangerous to human life; and
  3. You knowingly and intentionally acted in such a way that disregarded human life.

Essentially, the prosecutor must prove that you acted with implied malice. Further, remember that the main difference between second-degree murder and first-degree murder is that first-degree murder involves a killing that is premeditated and deliberate, while second-degree murder stems from a reckless disregard for human life.  This is why Watson Murders fall under the category of Second Degree Murder. 

Implied Malice

Often time, the most difficult aspect to prove of the prosecution’s case, it that you were aware that the act of driving while under the influence of drugs or alcohol was dangerous to human life. It can be difficult, because it requires the prosecution to what you were thinking when you got behind the wheel.  However, if you have previous DUI arrests, proving your mental state becomes much easier.  If you do have prior DUI convictions on your record, the prosecution will likely use them as evidence that you are aware of the dangers of driving a motor vehicle while intoxicated. Following a prior DUI conviction, you may have signed a form that included the Watson Murder Admonition, which states the dangers of driving a vehicle while under the influence and that someone may be killed as a result of your actions. Additionally, if you attended DUI classes in the past, prosecution may use that as evidence. However, if you were not issued the Watson Admonition or did not attend DUI classes, the prosecution may have a difficult time proving that you were aware of the severity of your actions because this assumes your mental state at the time of the incident.

Penalties if convicted of a Watson Murder charge

If you are convicted of a DUI second-degree Watson murder, the penalties can include from 15 years to life in prison, a fine of up to $10,000, restitution to the families of the deceased, and a strike on your record under the California Three Strikes Law. These penalties may increase based on the number of deaths you caused, if you left seriously injured survivors, as well as a number of other factors.

California’s Three Strikes Law imposes stricter sentences on habitual offenders. A second serious felony conviction mandates a prison sentence of twice the term otherwise provided for the crime. A third serious or violent conviction mandates a prison sentence of 25 years to life.

The Lawyers at the San Diego DUI Attorney Law Firm are prepared to defend against your Watson Murder Charge.  Do not delay, contact us today for your FREE DUI consultation.

When you call on the experienced criminal defense team at the San Diego DUI Attorney Law Firm, we will use our extensive knowledge of California law to help you achieve the best possible outcome. The circumstances of your case will provide us with a solid course of action for defending your case.  We will examine the facts of your field sobriety test, determine if your actions were not the cause of death, and attack any evidence of your implied malice. In appropriate, we will also argue that you were not at fault in the accident. If you never signed a form stating your understanding of the dangerous actions of driving under the influence, or did not complete DUI school after a prior conviction, it will be difficult for the prosecution to prove implied malice. If appropriate, we will fight to reduce your charges to manslaughter, or simple DUI.  Remember, manslaughter is appropriate if you acted with negligence rather than malice.

A second-degree murder charge following a DUI accident is an incredibly serious situation. You need the best defense team available to ensure that your rights are protected. The experienced DUI defense team at our office is equipped to aggressively defend your rights.

Contact the San Diego DUI Attorney Law Firm today at 619-535-7150 for a FREE DUI consultation.

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