Learning that you have caused an accident and killed another person can be devastating. The shock of the accident and the knowledge that a life was taken can wreak havoc on your emotional and mental state. When an accident like this occurs because a driver was under the influence of drugs or alcohol in California, the driver may face one of three felony charges. One of these is a second-degree murder charge, which is also known as a “Watson murder.” This charge carries the harshest possible penalties of all felony DUI charges in the state and is best handled by a felony DUI defense attorney.
People v. Watson Establishes DUI Suspects May be Charged with Murder
A murder charge is the most severe criminal charge the court can apply to a DUI case. In People v. Watson (1981) the defendant drove to a bar and consumed enough beer to reach a BAC of 0.23 percent, then drove home and caused a deadly collision. The Supreme Court of California concluded there was enough evidence to warrant a second-degree murder charge, presuming the defendant was aware of the hazards of driving under the influence.
“One who willfully consumes alcoholic beverages to the point of intoxication, knowing that he thereafter must operate a motor vehicle, thereby combining sharply impaired physical and mental faculties with a vehicle capable of great force and speed, reasonably may be held to exhibit a conscious disregard of the safety of others.”
In Watson, the defendant drove through city streets at double the speed limit and nearly crashed into a vehicle after running a red light. Afterward, he again crossed an intersection at excessive speed and did not brake in time to prevent a fatal collision that killed a mother and daughter. The court held that these facts supported the conclusion that the defendant had acted in conscious disregard for human life.
Knowing the “Watson Rule” in a California DUI
After Watson, it became possible to convict a person of second-degree murder for killing someone in a DUI accident in California. This is known as the Watson Murder Rule. Under this rule, a person with a prior DUI conviction who is under the influence of alcohol or drugs at the time they cause a fatal crash may be a candidate for a second-degree murder charge. It’s important to note, however, that a prior DUI conviction is not necessary to be charged with a Watson murder.
The defendant in this scenario must have been given an admonition following their first DUI conviction educating them on the dangers of drunk driving. The Watson Admonition is a warning that a subsequent DUI that results in the death of another person can lead to a murder charge. This warning may be issued several different ways, including:
- In a court-mandated DUI program
- In writing, as part of a form you must sign acknowledging you understand the admonition
- The judge may read the admonition to the defendant in court
A defendant who is not provided a Watson Admonition or never received one because he failed to complete a California DUI program may not be charged with a DUI murder charge. However, the prosecutor may still file one of two possible manslaughter charges:
- Gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated
- Negligent vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated
What are the elements of a Watson murder?
Since a Watson murder is a second-degree murder charge, there’s no need to prove premeditation or specific intent. Malice is implied from your conduct. The three elements necessary to convict are:
- You committed an intentional act that resulted in another’s death
- The natural consequences of your actions were such that they endangered human life
- You acted with conscious disregard for the consequences of that danger
Penalties for a DUI Murder Conviction in California
The stakes are high when fighting a second-degree murder charge. If you’re convicted of second-degree murder, you may be sentenced to:
- 15 years to life in state prison
- A fine of up to $10,000
- A strike on your criminal record
Under California criminal law, a strike means that your sentence may be doubled if you commit another felony offense.
Fighting a DUI Murder Charge in San Diego
There may be several defenses available to you depending on the facts of your case. The sooner you reach out to a DUI murder defense lawyer like Dod of Dod Law, the better your prospects may be.
Attorney Dod has more than 17 years of experience fighting to protect the rights of those who are criminally accused in San Diego. With more than 75 jury trials and 6,500 cases’ worth of experience, you can count on Attorney Dod to provide a strong defense for a Watson murder charge. Call (619) 814-5110 or complete our contact form for a free consultation.