Watson Warning and DUI based Murder Charges
When a person causes an accident as a result of impaired driving and as a result someone is killed, the incident normally results in a charge of vehicular manslaughter. However, where the prosecution can prove "malice" as an element of the offense, second degree murder charges may be filed. Malice may be express or impied through the defendant's conduct. In the Supreme Court decision of People v Sedeno 10 Cal.3d 703, 112 (1974), the court decided that implied malice may be found where a person commits an act, the natural consequences of which are dangerous to life, where the act was deliberately performed by a person who knows that his conduct endangers the life of another and who acts with a conscious disregard for life.
In the case of People v Watson 30 Cal. 3d 290 (1981) the court determined that the vehicular manslaughter statutes involving drunk driving do not prohibit or preclude a charge of murder where there are facts exhibiting wantonness and a conscious disregard for life to support a finding of implied malice.
Since Watson, the courts have gone further in relying on proof of prior DUI convictions as evidence of impied malice.
In 2005, the legislature enacted Vehicle Code Section 23593 which provides that the court shall advise a person convicted of DUI or Wet Reckless that driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs is dangerous to human life and that if the defendant continues to drive under the influence of alcohol or drugs and as a result of his or her driving someone is killed, he or she may be charged with murder. This advisory is now included in the standard plea form and is often read verbatim to the defendant in court by the judge or prosecutor at sentencing. This advisory may then be used as evidence of impied malice to support a murder prosecution if the defendant is subsequently arrested for causing death by drunk driving.