"Watson murder" is a form of California Penal Code 187, second-degree murder. Oftentimes, it is charged when someone with a prior California DUI conviction kills someone while driving under the influence. “Watson murder” takes its name from a 1981 California Supreme Court case called People v. Watson. In that case, the court held that a DUI driver who causes a fatal accident can be convicted of murder (Penal Code 187) if the driver acted with “implied malice.”
What is “implied malice” in a DUI murder case?
“Implied malice” is also known as “malice aforethought.” It does not require ill will toward the victim or an intention to cause the victim's death. Rather, a defendant acts with implied malice when:
He or she intentionally commits an act (in this case driving under the influence);
The natural and probable consequences of the act are dangerous to human life;
At the time the defendant acts he or she knows the act is dangerous to human life; and
The defendant deliberately acts with conscious disregard for human life.
The difficult part for the prosecutor is proving that the driver acted with a “conscious disregard for human life.”If the prosecutor cannot do this, a California DUI that results in death will usually be charged as either:
Penal Code 191.5(a), gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, or
Penal Code 191.5(b), vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated.
Factors that increase the likelihood of a DUI murder charge
As a practical matter, a prosecutor is most likely to charge a defendant with Watson murder when he or she:
Had a very high blood alcohol content (“BAC”) (typically 0.15% or more);
Had multiple prior convictions for drunk and/or drugged driving; and/or
Engaged in extremely reckless driving, such as:
Driving at excessive speed,
Engaging in an exhibition of speed or speed contest, or
Felony reckless evading of a peace officer.
Penalties for DUI murder in California
Punishment for DUI murder in California can include:
Fifteen (15) years to life in the California state prison;
A fine of up to ten thousand dollars ($10,000); and
A “strike” on the defendant's criminal record under California's “Three Strikes” law.
Legal defenses to Watson murder
Legal defenses to California DUI murder charges often include taking the position that:
The defendant did not drive under the influence,
The accident was not the defendant's fault,
The defendant did not act with implied malice.