When a drunk driver kills someone, he or she is usually charged under the vehicular manslaughter laws. But under certain circumstances, the driver can be charged with 2nd degree murder. Known as a “Watson Murder” charge, this crime gets its name from a California Supreme Court case, People v. Watson (1981) 30 Cal. 3d 290. In that case, the Supreme Court held that a driver who causes the death of another while driving under the influence, knowingly and intentionally doing so with conscious disregard for the natural consequence that the conduct could cause the death of another person, acted with implied malice. Without getting too technical here, that means the driver knew that his or her conduct risked the possibility of causing the death of another person. The element of implied malice distinguishes the criminal act from vehicular manslaughter. A Watson second-degree murder charge does not require the actual intent to kill someone.
Historically, California prosecutors only charged a Watson murder if the driver already had at least one DUI. That is because when a person is convicted of a DUI, they are required to acknowledge a “Watson” admonishment. This admonishment advises the defendant of the potential fatal consequences of driving under the influence and warns the defendant if he or she kills a person while driving under the influence, the prosecutor may charge the driver with 2nd degree murder. Furthermore, when a person is convicted of DUI, they must attend DUI classes, which also warn of these dangers. The Watson admonishment and the DUI education provides the prosecutor with evidence that the driver charged with a Watson murder acted with implied malice as the driver knew his or her act could result in the death of another but chose to drive under the influence anyway, i.e., the driver acted with implied malice.
While it is still more common to see a Watson murder charge filed against a driver who has at least one prior DUI, the past few years have seen more California prosecutors willing to charge a Watson murder even though the driver had no prior DUI. A Watson murder charge does not require a prior DUI, it only requires that the prosecution prove you had the necessary mental state. This is easier for the prosecution to prove when you have already received a Watson admonishment but in particularly egregious cases, the prosecution will argue that the facts are enough to establish implied malice.