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.

For example, recently a Lompoc woman was charged with a Watson murder even though she had no prior DUI. The woman was not only driving with a high 0.17% blood alcohol level, well above the 0.08% threshold, but was also under the influence of methamphetamines when she killed a woman while driving the wrong way on a city street. After the crash, she continued driving, crashing into two more cars, and still continued to drive away. The prosecution, in leveling the 2nd degree murder charge, used these facts as evidence that the driver’s acts were knowingly and intentionally done with a conscious disregard for the probable consequences.

Although prosecutors seem more willing these days to charge a Watson murder even though the driver had no prior DUI, it is not a slam dunk. Often prosecutors file the Watson murder charge to intimidate the defendant, hoping to get an easy plea on manslaughter charges. An experienced defense attorney can navigate this serious charge, identifying whether the elements are actually satisfied and any weaknesses in the prosecution’s evidence. Being charged with murder, especially when you had no intention to kill someone, is a harrowing experience but it doesn’t mean you will ultimately be convicted of murder.

William Weinberg has been defending drivers charged with DUI and related aggravated offenses for almost 25 years. If you have any questions or wish to consult with Mr. Weinberg concerning your DUI matter, you can contact him for a complimentary consultation at (949) 474-8008 or by email at bill@williamweinberg.com.