DUI Homicide: "Watson Murder"

If you have been arrested on charges of DUI and were involved in a DUI-related accident in which a fatality occurred, you may end up facing the charge of DUI homicide, also known as "Watson Murder." This is a felony and a second-degree murder charge and carries extremely severe penalties upon a conviction.

At Los Angeles DUI Lawyer, we have deep experience in handling all manner of DUI defense cases, including the most high-stakes variety possible — DUI homicide. If you are facing this charge or fear you may soon be facing it, do not waste a minute when so much is on the line. Contact us today, anytime 24/7, at 424-281-3020 for a free legal consultation and immediate attention to your case.

What Is "Watson Murder?"

Most DUIs are misdemeanors, and even most felony DUIs do not involve the death of another individual. Furthermore, even when someone other than the person driving DUI is killed in a DUI-related accident, it is not automatically a murder or even a felony. It all depends on the circumstances of each particular case and the criminal history of the person being charged.

First, to be convicted on a charge of DUI homicide, the defendant must have at least one prior DUI conviction on his/her record. Second, he must have been duly warned concerning the risk of a DUI becoming a murder charge, and third, he must have been involved in a DUI accident in which another person was killed.

Technically, "DUI homicide" is not even a specific, separate crime in the law book. It is simply a situation in which a person charged with DUI is also charged with second-degree murder under California Penal Code Section 187 for the same incident.

Although there can be exceptions in very extreme cases, a Watson Murder charge is almost never filed unless the defendant has already attended a state-approved DUI class and/or has been served the official "Watson Admonition," which specifically warns that a future DUI could potentially become a murder charge.

In other situations, those causing a fatality during a DUI will likely be charged with simple or gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated rather than Watson Murder.

Incidentally, the term "Watson Murder" derives from the 1981 California Supreme Court decision, in People vs. Watson, which opened the door for drunk drivers being charged with second-degree murder for fatalities in DUI accidents they caused.

Watson Murder vs. Vehicular Manslaughter

In California, first-degree murder is only charged when there was an intention to kill, while second-degree murder can be charged when reckless indifference for the lives of others leads to a death, even though no actual intention to kill the other person existed.

"Manslaughter" is a charge reserved for unintentionally causing the death of another (where some form of negligence or misconduct is also involved.) However, the degree of negligence and the presence/lack of prior warning about the dangers of DUI distinguish vehicular manslaughter from DUI homicide.

This distinction is extremely important to the defendant since murder can lead to life imprisonment or, at least, very long terms in state prison. While punishments for manslaughter are severe, they are much less severe than for any form of murder.

If there are no previous DUIs or no DUI class or Watson Warning was issued, Watson Murder will not likely be charged. However, since the Watson Warning that driving under the influence of alcohol/drugs is very dangerous and puts others at risk of death (and/or DUI School) follows virtually every DUI conviction, in effect, any repeat offense DUI could be charged as Watson Murder if a fatality is involved. 

If Watson Murder is not charged, vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated can be charged as either a felony or misdemeanor under Penal Code Section 191.5b. This charge is typically filed when the DUI driver was speeding, ran a red light, or violated some other traffic law.

For gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, which is always a felony, to be filed under PC 191.5a, it is necessary that the defendant was not merely inattentive or negligent in an "ordinary" manner but was negligent to the point of knowingly and with reckless indifference endangering the lives of others.

What Must the Prosecution Prove?

A conviction on the charge of DUI homicide can result in life imprisonment, a much more severe end-result than even a gross manslaughter conviction, which can carry up to a decade in state prison.

Thus, defeating a DUI homicide charge or at least getting it reduced to a lesser charge (even if that lesser charge is also quite severe) is of the utmost importance to the defendant for the remainder of his/her life.

The prosecution, however, often feels pressured to file the most severe possible charge in the interests of the family of the victim. This means that only the most skilled defense attorneys should be relied on for these types of cases.

To gain a conviction for Watson Murder, the prosecution must prove the following elements of the crime beyond all doubt:

  • The defendant intentionally committed and act (DUI) that led to the death of another, and this act amounts to "implied malice."
  • The defendant knew or should have known that the act he/she was committing was likely to lead to the death of another human being.
  • The defendant had been fully informed of the dangerous nature of the act, and yet, engaged in it anyway, thus knowingly risking the lives of others.

Also note that, in order to gain a conviction, the facts of the case at hand will normally include a number of specific circumstances, without which the charge will likely be reduced to some form of vehicular manslaughter. These circumstances include:

  • The defendant had a rather high blood-alcohol concentration (BAC), perhaps, even higher than .08, though .08 will do.
  • The defendant engaged in an act or a series of acts that can only be described as reckless driving. Traffic laws were ignored, and the safety of others on the road or of pedestrians nearby was not taken into consideration.
  • The defendant had an intention to drive a motor vehicle after consuming alcohol or drugs, and this intention existed even before his/her mind was affected by intoxication.
  • The defendant was well aware of the dangers posed to others by his/her driving DUI, perhaps, by direct experience gained during multiple previous DUIs.

"Implied Malice" Must Be Proved Beyond Doubt

Since Watson Murder involves no "overt malice," as in first-degree murder, the prosecution must work to establish "implied malice" to gain a conviction. 

Implied malice, and thus second-degree murder, can be proved in the California legal system by showing that the defendant was explicitly given the "Watson Warning" or that the defendant spent time in a state-approved DUI class where the dangers of driving DUI were adequately communicated. However, remember that only those with a prior DUI can be charged with Watson Murder.

  1. The Watson Warning Route

After a previous DUI conviction, the defendant should have been forced to sign document stating the dangers of DUI to lives of others or to have verbally assent to the facts contained in the Watson Warning.

When one signs/verbally acknowledges this warning, he/she agrees that driving under the influence of alcohol or an intoxicating drug puts others in "extreme danger" and states that he/she understands that a second DUI could lead to a Watson Murder charge should another person be killed in an accident stemming from that DUI.

Prosecutors will immediately reach for the Watson Warning to prove implied malice in a DUI homicide case. They typically bring the very form that the defendant signed after their first DUI, into the courtroom as evidence. Or, they may bring up the court record where it is stated that the presiding judge over their previous DUI case read them the Watson Warning and that they verbally agreed to it.

  1. The DUI School Route

If, for any reason, the first try (Watson Warning method) fails or is inconclusive to demonstrate implied malice; or, if the prosecutor simply wants to double down with extra evidence; the fact of the defendant's being sentenced to and actually attending DUI School can be relied on.

The records of attendance and/or completion will be brought forth, including which days and hours, at what locations, and under which supervisor the defendant attended the classes. The contents of the course taken will be produced as well, so as to establish that the defendant had "special knowledge" of the dangers that driving DUI posed to other people.

Possible Penalties for a Watson Murder Conviction

While suspension of your driver's license, DUI probation, mandatory installation of IIDs (ignition interlock devices), and mandatory attendance at a DUI School are serious sentencing elements that are part of many DUI convictions, a conviction for DUI homicide involves much more severe sentencing elements.

First, a term of anywhere from 15 years to life in state prison will be part of the sentence.

Second, a fine of as much as $10,000 is possible.

Third, there will be a strike on your record under California's "Three Strikes" law, which will enhance sentencing for any subsequent felony convictions.

Fourth and finally, if there was another victim involved in the accident who survived it but suffered "great bodily harm," your prison term can be increased by three to six years. And if there is a second surviving victim who suffered great bodily harm, an extra year is added for him/her as well (up to three extra years for all additional injured victims.)

How Can a Watson Murder Charge Be Challenged?

At Los Angeles DUI Lawyer, we understand the gravity of a DUI homicide charge, and we are fully familiar with the most successful defense strategies to use in defeating these charges. We expect the prosecution to forcefully prosecute his/her case, but we are no less zealous to defend our own clients. And we have the experience to anticipate our opponent's next move and to find ways to call his/her evidence into question.

The first way to challenge a DUI homicide charge is to fight the DUI charge in the same way you would for any other DUI. We will look closely at how the police and investigators handled their duties and look for any violations of your rights. We will ensure that Title 17 protocols, which are meant to ensure the integrity of BAC blood samples, were followed to the letter. Other possible defenses, like having a still-rising BAC, having a medical condition that threw off the breath test, or lack of signs of mental impairment will also be explored.

Next, we can challenge the second-degree murder allegation by carefully reconstructing the accident scene and sequence of events, obtaining witnesses in your favor, and calling in our own "experts" to testify on technical issues in a way that could help you win your case. The goal is to show that the accident and resulting death were not caused by your driving or your being intoxicated.

Finally, we can work to disprove implied malice. This can be done in several ways, such as showing that you were last convicted of DUI before the practice of issuing a Watson Warning upon conviction was yet followed, or showing that while you were sentenced to a DUI School, you either never attended or never completed the class.

Contact Us Today for Help

Here at Los Angeles DUI Lawyer, we stand ready to assist you in your hour of need, regardless of which type of DUI charge you may be facing. Our team of experienced DUI defense lawyers have a long track record of obtaining the best possible outcome to each case they take on, including for DUI homicide cases.

For a free consultation on the details of your case, contact us 24/7/365 at 424-281-3020.

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Los Angeles DUI Defense Attorney Jeff Voll

After serving his country for 6 years as an infantry sergeant, Edward Blum left military service and went to law school. Upon graduating he took up the mantle of defending the constitution one person accused of a crime at a time. For over 20 years Edward Blum has fought and tried misdemeanor and felony criminal cases in Southern California. Edward Blum has tried hudnreds of cases from possession of drugs to murder. When he's not standing up to prosecutors, Edward Blum lectures on each citizens rights and how to interact with cops (Hint: Don't).

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