It’s the scenario we all hope never happens—and one that in truth should never happen. Someone has a lapse in judgment, gets behind the wheel while under the influence of alcohol or another substance, gets into an accident—and another person dies as a result. Aside from the overwhelming sense of loss and guilt of knowing his actions have caused this death, now that person may be facing more serious criminal charges on top of the DUI.
In a perfect world, you should never find yourself in this situation, but if you are charged in California with a DUI incident involving a fatality, what can you expect? What, exactly, are you facing?
Three Possible Charges
By California law, when a DUI results in someone’s death, you may be charged with one of three crimes in addition to your DUI. In order of severity, they are:
• Vehicular Manslaughter while Intoxicated;
• Gross Vehicular Manslaughter while Intoxicated; and
• DUI Murder (also called “Watson Murder,” a form of second-degree murder).
Let’s examine each of these in more detail.
Vehicular Manslaughter while Intoxicated
The lightest of the three possible charges, Vehicular Manslaughter while Intoxicated is described in California Penal Code Section 191.5(b) PC as “the unlawful killing of a human being without malice aforethought, in the driving of a vehicle…but without gross negligence.”
In other words, the only factor separating this charge from Gross Vehicular Manslaughter is the amount of negligence involved. If your actions while DUI appeared to be an arbitrary lapse of caution (ordinary negligence), rather than a flagrant disregard for safety (gross negligence), the prosecution may choose to charge you with the lesser crime of Vehicular Manslaughter while Intoxicated.
Proving Vehicular Manslaughter while Intoxicated
To prove this crime in court, the prosecution must effectively demonstrate four things:
1. You had a blood alcohol content of 0.08 or greater;
2. You broke some other law in the course of your DUI (for example, speeding or running a stop sign);
3. You acted with “ordinary negligence”; and
4. Someone died as a result of your actions.
What Are the Penalties?
Vehicular Manslaughter while Intoxicated is a “wobbler” under California law, meaning it can be either a misdemeanor or felony, depending on the circumstances.
If convicted of the misdemeanor, you could face stiff fines, community service, mandated alcohol counseling, restitution for the victim’s family and up to a year in jail.
For the felony, you could face up to 4 years in prison (plus another 6 if other people sustained serious bodily injury), plus a fine of $10,000 and victim restitution.
Gross Vehicular Manslaughter while Intoxicated
The second-most severe offense, Gross Vehicular Manslaughter while Intoxicated, is covered in California Penal Code Section 191.5(a) PC. It’s effectively the same charge as Vehicular Manslaughter while Intoxicated, with the following exceptions:
(a) it alleges “gross negligence” versus “ordinary negligence”;
(b) it is always a felony; and
(c) the penalties for conviction are more severe.
To best understand the difference between these two charges, let’s discuss the legal differences between ordinary and gross negligence.
Ordinary negligence refers to a failure to use reasonable caution, while gross negligence alludes to more a conscious disregard for potential risk—typically of something that likely to result in others’ injury or death—and it’s something others could easily identify as reckless.
For example, if you were driving aggressively, speeding or swerving between lanes at the time of the crash, you’d be much more likely to be charged for Gross Vehicular Manslaughter. However, if your accident occurred as a result of momentary distraction (e.g., failing to notice a red light), it could be argued that you were only acting with ordinary negligence, and you might be charged with the lesser offense.
Proving Gross Vehicular Manslaughter while Intoxicated
To demonstrate this elevated charge in court, prosecutors must begin by proving you were above the minimum legal BAC limit, violated another ordinance and caused someone’s death. Then, the prosecutors must provide ample evidence that your actions were grossly negligent (as opposed to ordinary negligence).
What are the penalties?
If convicted of Gross Vehicular Manslaughter while Intoxicated, you may face fines of up to $10,000 and a prison sentence of up to 10 years.
DUI Murder (aka, “Watson Murder”)
The most serious DUI charge you may face in causing someone’s death is DUI Murder—effectively, second-degree murder. This charge is sometimes referred to as “Watson Murder” after a 1981 California Supreme Court case that established that a person could be legally convicted of murder for causing someone’s death while driving under the influence.
Murder is defined in California Penal Code 187 PC as “the unlawful killing of a human being or a fetus with malice aforethought.” This definition encompasses both first- and second-degree murder. This phrase, “malice aforethought,” is the key element that differentiates murder from manslaughter.
Malice aforethought does not necessarily mean intent to kill; it can but it may also include to a “wanton disregard for human life.” If you are charged with DUI murder, the prosecution will try to prove you were aware that operating a vehicle in your impaired condition could cause someone to die. Because you knew better, but chose to drive anyway, then malice aforethought is implied by your actions—hence, second-degree murder.
Proving DUI Murder
DUI Murder is actually a bit difficult to prove, and for that reason the District Attorney’s office rarely pursues this charge. Prosecutors normally reserve DUI Murder charges for defendants with a prior DUI conviction; Since you’ have attended a court-mandated class on the topic, prosecutors will use this prior conviction to affirm that you have been educated on the dangers of DUI.
Specifically, to secure a conviction for DUI Murder, prosecutors must effectively demonstrate that:
• You made a conscious choice to drive while under the influence;
• You knew that action could result in someone’s death, but you consciously disregarded that danger (implied malice); and
• Your resulting actions behind the wheel caused someone’s death.
What are the penalties?
The penalties for DUI Murder are similar to those of second-degree murder. If convicted, you could face fines of $10,000 plus 15 years to life in prison—and if other people were harmed in the accident, your prison sentence could be extended incrementally for each injury.
Regardless of the severity of the possible charges or penalties, the most important takeaway to remember is that driving DUI always puts other lives in danger, whether or not the prosecutor claims you knew the risks.
When you consider how deeply even one of these charges could ruin your life (not to mention the lives of others), you understand that a simple DUI conviction is tantamount to being “let off easy.” If you do find yourself charged with someone’s death due to DUI, don’t face the charges alone; let us help you navigate these tricky waters. Call our offices for assistance.