Understanding California's DUI "Watson Murder" Charges

In California, when someone drives under the influence and causes an accident which kills another person, the defendant can be charged with second degree murder.

Second degree murder, otherwise known as a "Watson murder" is the most serious felony DUI charge in California. Under CA Penal Code Section 191.5(a), gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated is the unlawful killing of a human being without malice aforethought while driving a vehicle.

In contrast, murder is defined as the "unlawful killing of a human being, or a fetus with malice aforethought." When someone acts with malice aforethought, he or she is in a state of mind that deliberately results in injury or death.

It is important to note that with second degree murder, "intent" is not a requirement, which is the element that distinguishes first degree murder from second degree murder.

The phrase "Watson murder" comes from the 1981 landmark case, People v. Watson, 30 Cal.3d 290. In the People v. Watson, the defendant was charged with second degree murder and vehicular manslaughter after a night of drinking ended in the killing of a six-year-old girl and her mother.

In Watson, an hour and a half after leaving a Redding bar, the defendant approached an intersection and struck a Toyota sedan. Three of the passengers were ejected from the vehicle, killing the driver and her six-year old daughter.

The speed limit at the accident scene was 35 mph, however, based on the skid marks and physical evidence, Watson was driving 84 mph prior to applying his brakes. The defendant's blood alcohol content was .23% after the collision.

The Watson case set the stage for drunk drivers who kill someone in an accident to be convicted of second degree murder under Penal Code 187 murder. Since Watson, individuals convicted of DUI in California must either sign or verbally acknowledge the "Watson advisement," at the time they receive their sentencing from the courts.

By signing the Watson advisement, the defendant is acknowledging that:

  • Driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs is extremely dangerous to human life.
  • If you kill someone while driving under the influence, you could be charged with murder.

What the Prosecutor Must Prove

To be convicted of second degree murder, the prosecutor must prove that: 1) the death was the result of an intentional act, 2) the consequences of the act are dangerous to human life, and 3) you knowingly acted with conscious disregard for human life.

With Watson, the court made it a virtual certainty that any man or woman who knowingly drives to a social outing, has a few drinks, and while driving home is in an accident where someone is killed, they could be charged with murder in the second degree.

If you are convicted of DUI second degree murder, you face:

  • 15 years to life in prison
  • A fine up to $10,000

It is important to note that when someone is charged with a California "Watson murder," the prosecutor will zealously prosecute the defendant to the fullest extent of the law. In the face of murder charges, having a hard-hitting criminal defense attorney in your corner is absolutely critical. At Lessem, Newstat & Tooson, LLP, our Ventura DUI lawyers are prepared to represent clients facing murder changes and all other DUI allegations throughout Ventura County and beyond.

Involved in a fatal DUI accident? Protect your rights – contact Lessem, Newstat & Tooson, LLP now!