The Watson Murder Rule & Implied Malice Theory

In The Landmark California Supreme Court case of People v. Watson, (1981) 30 Cal.3d 290, the Supreme Court created the crime of 2nd degree murder based upon an Implied Malice theory when someone dies as a result of a person driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol. This is a unique and distinguishable form of 2nd Degree Murder from Gross Vehicular Manslaughter due to the "Implied Malice" standard as opposed to Gross Negligence. The California Supreme Court held: 

"the requisite culpability for the Vehicle Manslaughter herein charged is Gross Negligence which has been defined previously as the exercise of so slight a degree of care as to raise a conscious indifference presumption to the consequences of one's actions. Alternatively, malice may be implied when a person acts knowing that his or her conduct endangers the life of another but nonetheless deliberately acts with conscious disregard for life. These definitions bear a similarity but they are not equal. Implied Malice is a subjective awareness of a higher degree of risk than Gross Negligence and it involves an element of wantonness which is absent in Gross Negligence." 

CalCrim Jury Instruction 520 states: The defendant is charged with murder.

To prove the defendant is guilty, the Prosecution must prove:

  1. The defendant committed an act that caused the death of another person/fetus); AND
  2. When the defendant acted, she or he had a state of mind which is called malice aforethought.

The jury Instruction goes on to state that there are two kinds of malice aforethought, express malice and implied malice. Proof of either is sufficient to establish the state of mind required for murder.

The defendant acted with Express Malice if she or he unlawfully intended to kill.

The defendant acted with Implied Malice if he or she:

  1. intentionally committed an act;
  2. The natural consequences of that act were/are dangerous to human life;
  3. At the time she or he acted, she or he knew her or his act was dangerous to human life; [AND]
  4. she or her deliberately acted with conscious disregard for life.

The evidence that the prosecutor will present in pursuit of a Watson Murder charge concerns the accused's prior conduct and knowledge of the dangers of driving under the influence. The D.D.A. will also introduce evidence of the terms and conditions of probation of any prior DUI convictions. The Deputy District Attorney will present evidence of prior driving under the influence convictions which can simply be presented in the form of certified dockets from the other case convictions. The Deputy D.A. may also introduce transcript and/or Tahl Waiver forms which may or may not include the Watson admonishment. This Watson admonition may be included in the prior DUI conviction Misdemeanor Advisement of Rights and Waiver Form and the box on the form stating the Watson advisement must be initialed by the defendant signifying she or he understood the advisement. The advisement reads, "I understand that being under the influence of drugs or alcohol or both impairs my ability to operate a motor vehicle safely, and that it is extremely dangerous to human life to drive a motor vehicle while under the influence of drugs or alcohol or both and that if I continue to drive while under the influence and someone is killed , I can be charged with murder." 

The Deputy D.A. will also attempt to introduce the defendant's prior terms and conditions of probation, the defendant's attendance at the Driving Under the Influence alcohol program and the specific content and materials taught at the class. This evidence will be admissible to establish the accused's actual knowledge of the risk of driving while impaired.  

CAUSATION

One very important issue in these types of prosecutions is whether the defendant's conduct was the proximate cause of the decedent's death. One of the necessary elements that the prosecutor must meet beyond a reasonable doubt is that the defendant's actions be the proximate cause of the accident resulting in death. When the conduct of more than one person, including the decedent, contributes as a cause of death, the acts of each is a cause of the death if the act(s) were also a substantial factor contributing to the death. The negligence of the decedent or any other third party does not relieve the defendant of criminal culpability. But, this type of contributing negligence will relieve the defendant of criminal liability if the decedent or a third party's conduct was the sole OR superceding cause of the death thereby breaking the chain of causation AFTER the accused's original act.

GROSS VEHICULAR MANSLAUGHTER AND NEGLIGENT VEHICULAR MANSLAUGHTER

There are two types of Vehicle Manslaughter which are BOTH strikes: Gross and Negligent

Gross Vehicular Manslaughter is the more serious of the two.

California Penal Code section 191.5(a) states: "gross vehicular manslaughter while under the influence is the illegal killing of a human being without malice aforethought, while driving a vehicle in violation of Vehicle Code section 23140, 23152 or 23153, and the killing was either the proximate result of an illegal act, not amounting to a felony, and with gross negligence, OR the proximate result of an illegal act which might result in death, in an unlawful matter with gross negligence."

Negligent Vehicular Manslaughter is the least serious of the two

California Penal Code section 191.5(b) states: "driving a vehicle in violation of Vehicle Code section 23140, 23152 or 23153 and not amounting to a felony, but without gross negligence, OR driving a vehicle in violation of Vehicle Code section 23140, 23152 or 23153 in the commission of a legal act which might result in death in an unlawful manner but without gross negligence."

The main difference between these two charges is the degree of negligence.

SENTENCING

2nd Degree Murder carries a sentence of 15 years to Life.

California Penal Code section 191.5(a) carries a sentence of 4, 6 or 10 years BUT (providing the defendant has suffered certain prior convictions) the sentence can be 15 to Life.

California Penal Code section 191.5(b) carries a sentence of 16 months, 2 or 4 years.

Additional Sentencing Issues:

Another Big issue in this area is California Penal Code section 12022.7 which imposes additional prison time if Great Bodily Injury is inflicted in the commission of the DUI collision. California Penal Code section 12022.7 imposes an extra 3 years in prison upon a defendant who inflicts great bodily injury and an extra 5 years in prison upon a defendant if the great bodily injury causes someone to become comatose due to brain injury or suffer permanent paralysis.

Lastly, California Vehicle Code section 23558 allows for an additional one year sentence enhancement for causing injury to more than one victim up to a maximum of three additional years.

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