Watson DUI Murder Charges in California – Penal Code Section 187

In California, a DUI murder charge is known as a “Watson murder,” which is a second-degree murder that can be filed by the prosecutor in cases where you were driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs and another person is killed.

The name “Watson murder” comes from a California Supreme Court case called People v. Watson, where the court ruled a DUI driver causing a fatal accident can be convicted of murder if they acted with “implied malice.”

A Watson murder is charged in a situation where you have a prior DUI conviction and were warned of the safety risks of driving under the influence, and then commit another DUI offense, that caused a traffic accident resulting in someone’s death.

It should be noted a DUI murder is not a separate crime, but it describes a situation where a prosecutor can charge you with second-degree murder under Penal Code 187, for committing a fatal DUI.

California law describes a distinction between murder and manslaughter. Murder is a death due to malicious behavior or a reckless disregard for human life. Manslaughter is a death from a negligent act with the safety of others.

The vast majority of deaths caused by driving under the influence in California are filed as a manslaughter offense. In DUI cases causing death, a driver is negligent, but has no malicious intent to murder.

A second-degree murder is an unplanned killing of someone acting with “malice,” meaning a conscious, knowing disregard for human life. Driving under the influence is a danger to someone’s life, and the behavior is considered implied malice.

To give readers a better understanding of a Watson DUI murder, our California criminal defense attorneys are providing an overview below.

Description of a Watson DUI Murder Charge

As stated above, a “Watson murder” refers to the California Supreme Court case, People vs. Watson, where it was decided that a DUI offender could be held liable for second-degree murder when another person is killed in an auto accident while you were driving.

However, it must be proven you knew that driving under the influence could cause the death someone – then your conduct would count as “implied malice.”

There are two ways where you could be charged of DUI murder:

  • You have a DUI conviction and signed a document known as a Watson advisement, which is an official statement you are aware that driving under the influence could cause injury or death.
  • You have a DUI conviction and attended a DUI school, where the classes covered the dangers of driving drunk and the risk to other people were made clear.

The primary reason you could face second-degree murder charges is because you were specifically warned. As you can see in the two categories above, you did in fact receive warnings on the risk of driving drunk. This means if you drove while drunk again, you were acting with malice.

The Watson Admonition

If convicted of reckless driving involving alcohol, which is called a “wet reckless,” DUI, or DUI with injury, then the judge will read to you the Watson Admonition during sentencing:

“You are advised that being under the influence of alcohol or drugs impairs your ability to safely operate a motor vehicle, and it’s extremely dangerous to human life. If you continue to drive under the influence and as a result of driving, someone is killed, you can be charged with murder.”

Once you sign the Watson advisement, you are acknowledging it’s dangerous to human life to drive under the influence of alcohol or drugs. If another person is killed while you are driving under the influence, the prosecutor will charge you with murder.

What Does the Prosecutor Have to Prove?

In order for the prosecutor to convict you of DUI murder, they must be able to prove you acted with implied malice, meaning proving the elements of the crime of a Watson murder:

  • You committed an intentional act causing the death of another person
  • When you acted, the consequences of your act was dangerous to life of others
  • You knowingly acted with conscious disregard for the danger to human life

In order for the prosecutor to prove you acted with “implied malice” and guilty of a second-degree DUI murder charge, they will show proof you were given the Watson advisement or prove you attended a DUI school. This means you have a at least one prior DUI conviction.

There is no legal requirement to show you had intent to kill someone, rather that you intentionally committed an act that could likely result in harm to someone else.

Your act of driving while under the influence of causes a substantial risk of harm to other people. If you decide to drive while intoxicated, then the legal requirement is normally satisfied.

Legal Penalties for Watson DUI Murder

If convicted of DUI second-degree Watson murder charge, you are facing 15 years to life in a California state prison, a fine up to $10,000. The felony will also count as a “strike” under California’s Three Strikes Law. This means if it’s a third strike on your record, you are facing 25 years to life in prison.

If there are surviving victims that sustained great bodily injury due to your conduct that lead to a DUI murder conviction, you could receive an additional and consecutive penalty of 3 to 6 years in state prison.

Fighting Watson DUI Murder Charges

Our Los Angeles criminal defense attorneys can use various strategies on your behalf to obtain the best possible outcome on the case:

Not legally intoxicated 

We might be able to make an argument to challenge the credibility of the test showing you were legally intoxicated, including discrediting the accuracy of any chemical blood or breath test results.

Improper police procedures

We will closely examine all the facts and circumstances of your DUI arrest and investigation in an attempt to uncover mistakes or an unlawful police stop.

You were not at fault in the car accident

We might be able to make a reasonable argument that the auto accident was not your fault by utilizing an accident reconstruction expert who can determine how the accident happened. We might be able to show the other driver violated a traffic law or was driving in a negligent manner.

It should be noted that if these defense strategies don’t result in the charges being dropped, they might be sufficient to negotiate with the prosecutor to get the charges reduced to a lesser offense, such as reckless driving.

If you have been charged with a California DUI second-degree Watson murder, you need to consult with our law firm to review the details and options.  We have decades of experience and a track record of success.

Cron, Israels & Stark is a criminal defense law firm located at 11755 Wilshire Blvd, 15th Floor, Los Angeles, CA 90025. Contact our office for a free case evaluation at (424) 372-3112.