When DUI is Charged as a Murder or “Watson Murder” in California

November 29, 2016

watson murderIn this article, DUI Defense Lawyer discusses Watson Murder, which is a death casing DUI that is Charged as a Murder.  Click on the links below to go directly to your topic of interest.

What is “Watson Murder

Driving under the influence, or DUI is defined as driving while under the influence of alcohol or drugs.  In California, as in many other states, DUI is also alternatively defined as driving with a blood alcohol content at or above .08%.  Those are two different crimes, as many person might not be impaired with a blood alcohol level of .08% and others will be impaired at lower level then .08% BAC.  Both crimes are found in the California Vehicle Code section 23152 paragraphs (a) and (b).  In California and therefore in Los Angeles, a DUI can be an aggravated DUI when one of several factors are present.  First, the actual level of impairment, to wit, a person who has a high blood alcohol level, such as at .20% BAC, will be prosecuted more severely than a person with a low blood alchohol level, such as .08% BAC.  Other factors are speeding over 30 MHP above the speed limit, presence of minors in the car, and an accident.

Because a DUI related accident in Los Angeles is what untilmatelly citizen of this city fear, Los Angeles DUI prosecutors will demand that the juges imposes a more severe sentense on such DUI drivers.  An accident is what causes the “victimless crime” of DUI to be transformed to a crime with an actual victim – the injured person.   In fact, a DUI driver in Los Angeles causes that causes an injury to someone due to the accident, can, and often will be charged not with a DUI, but with an “Injury DUI”, which is a different statute with different punishment (California Vehicle Code section 23153 instead of California Vehicle Code section 23152).  If the DUI driver in Los Angeles causes an injury that is “serious” , that Los Angeles DUI can be elevated to a felony, and, in some cases, becomes a strike under California 3 strike laws.  DUI inherently is not a “strike” offense, because it is not listed in “strike” offense statutes (PC 667.5 and PC 1192.7); however, a DUI can become a strike, when a Great Bodily Injury special allegation is charged under California Penal Code section 12022.7 (found in 1192.7(c)(8) and 667.5(c)(8)).  This, (c)(8) matching paragraph in both PC 667.5 and 1192.7 makes a DUI with great bodily injury, both violent and serious strike.  The discussion of seriour v. violent strike is a complicated topic in itself and beyond the scope of this article – suffice it to say that a GBI allegation under California Penal Code 12022.7, makes a person inelgible for 50% credits and adds 3 years.

Ultimately, if someone dies after a DUI-related accident, Los Angeles District Attorney can and often does charge murder, under California Penal Code section 187(a).  This murder charge that is based on a death causign DUI in Los Angeles would be a second-degree murder under PC 187(a) which carries a punishment from 15 years to life in the California State Prison.  It is commonly called a “Watson”, murder and is the most severe offense that a Los Angeles DUI driver can commit and it has the most severe punishments and Los Angles drivers can face.

The expression “Watson murder” originates from People v. Watson, a 1981 California Supreme Court case. This case surrounded a debate on whether or not it is possible for a person who has no intention of killing someone to be guilty of murder.  The court decided that it is possible on a “implied malice” doctrine.   Yet, in Los Angeles DUI prosecutution, unlike for example, in Orange County DUI prosecutions, it is rare to be charge murder if the impaired driver had a clean record prior to the death causing DUI in Los Angeles.  The reasons prosecutors do not charge Watson “murder” during 1st DUI prosecution where death is involved has to do with perceived DUI driver argument that he had no idea how dangerour it is.  the knowledge that drinking and driving are dangerous to human life.  In Los Angeles DUIs, if someone dies as a result of a DUI, and there is no prior criminal record, prosecutors will charge vehicular manslaughter.  There is a big difference between manslaughter and murder because vehicular manslaughter carries a maximum punishment of 10 years, whereas murder carries a punishment of life in prison.

For Los Angeles DUI, prosecutors normally only charge you with murder if you have been told before about the dangers of drinking and driving.  This is known as “Watson admonition”— and is an official warning that is given to most persons who are convicted of DUI.   This “admonition” is also part of plea forms and all judges read it into the records at the end of a DUI plea.   For Los Angeles DUI, when one does not have a DUI conviction in the past, a Los Angeles DUI defendant that caused someone to die, will probably be charged with gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated or vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated only.  Recently there has been a trend to prosecute cases that do not have prior DUI conviction.  For example, in a recent case of People v. Davion Murphy, a Los Angeles case that was prosecuted in Lancaster for a DUI causing death, a Watson Murder, the notice element was based on a multi-day class that Murphy took as a minor.  This class was taken 3 years prior to the collision to educate minors on dangers of drunk driving in Los Angeles and elsewhere.    This class was taken 2 years prior to Mr. Davion Murphy getting a California Driver’s License.  At the time Davion Murphy applied for driver’s license, the application form had a “Watson Advisement”.    Watson Advisement reads in relavant parts:

…being under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or both, impairs the ability to safely operate a motor vehicle. Therefore, it is extremely dangerous to human life to drive while under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or both. If I drive while under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or both, and as a result, a person is killed, I can be charged with murder.”

The same advisement is present in Los Angeles DUI plea form.   The Los Angeles District Attorney Office is getting accostomed to the idea that prior DUI conviction “Watson” advisement is not necessary to charge a Watson murder.  In case of Mr. Murphy, he killed three people, a family who were traveling together in their car.   It could have been the reason Los Angeles District Attorney charged Watson murder, but it creates a dangerous precedent where Los Angeles District Attorney will not be hesitant to charge murder DUI in Los Angeles on less serious facts.  The law has no requirement that prior DUI conviction is requuired for Watson murder; the Los Angeles District Attorney simply relied on its custom to charge Watson murder with a prior DUI conviction.  Now, prios “driver education classes” and advisement on Driver’s License application forms could be suffiient reasons for the prosecutors to charge murder charges afte a death causing DUI in Los Angeles.

Elements of the “Watson Murder

In California, a jury can only find you guilty of Watson’s “DUI” murder if they believe that you acted with “implied malice”.  To prove “implied malice” Los Angeles DA has to prove to the jury that:

  1. You perpetrated a deliberate act that led to somebody’s death;
  2. That act’s natural results are threatening to human life; and
  3. You intentionally acted with conscious indifference to that threat.

There is no requirement that a DUI driver intends to kill someone in a Watson murder prosecution.  Because the act is “implied malice”, it is proven by drinking and driving while knowing that someone might die as a result of that driving.  In contrast, first-degree murder requires an actual intent to kill.

Penalties for DUI Murder

A person found guilty of a DUI second-degree Watson murder will be sentenced to:

  • 15 years or more in a California State Prison;
  • A $10,000.00 fine;
  • Restitution payment to compensate the victim for the expense (including funeral expense)

Also, a conviction for murder will be a strike, so if a DUI driver has a previous criminal record, such as 2 strikes, he can be sentenced to 25 years to life under California 3 strike laws.

If any additional victims have survived but suffered a “great bodily injury” because of the conduct that resulted in the DUI murder conviction, you can get an extra and uninterrupted DUI penalty of three to six years in prison. “Great bodily injury” is defined as a considerable injury. Also, if there is at least one surviving victim of the Watson murder who experiences any injury, you encounter an extra and uninterrupted one-year sentence for every individual up to the maximum sentence of three years.

Los Angeles DUI Attorney

If you have any questions about your case, call Drunk Driving Defense Attorney directly. You will get a complimentary DUI case review!



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