Two New Rulings Uphold ‘Implied Malice’ for Charging Fatal DUIs as Second-Degree Murder
In California, prosecutors can charge second-degree murder in a fatal DUI crash, alleging that the defendant acted with “implied malice” because he or she has prior DUI conviction(s) and was warned of the safety risks of driving under the influence, and the current collision involved hazardous driving.
A “Watson admonition” is a warning given to those convicted of driving under the influence advising that DUI is dangerous to human life and that another conviction might lead to murder charges. Such a charge is called a “Watson murder.”
Lagunas, the defendant, while driving at high speed in a residential neighborhood and under the influence of alcohol, failed to negotiate a turn or apply his brakes, and killed a six-year-old girl playing in her front yard. A witness estimated the vehicle speed at 40-plus mph and stated that the driving was “erratic, unresponsible, too fast, dangerous.” After having failed to safely negotiate a right-hand turn at a T-intersection, Lagunas’ vehicle drifted across the road, struck a parked vehicle, jumped the curb, and drove into the yard of a home where the young girl was playing. She was transported to the hospital, where she later died due to numerous blunt force injuries. The defendant was not injured.
Lagunas displayed objective symptoms of intoxication and was unable to follow simple instructions in performing a field sobriety test. He was arrested for DUI. A search of his vehicle located an empty beer can in the center console and three more empty cans in the rear seat area.
Lagunas said his brakes locked up and he could not control the steering to make the turn. He admitted to drinking one 24-ounce can of beer at breakfast, a second at his jobsite, and a third prior to leaving work.
An accident reconstruction expert testified that a physical examination and testing of the braking and steering systems on the vehicle revealed all were in proper working order: “Zero issues with it;” “I did not observe any deficiencies or anything that I would be able to articulate could have contributed to the crash.”
A DOJ forensic expert testified that Lagunas’ BAC at the time of the accident was .23 or the equivalent of between 11-12 standard drinks (a standard drink being one twelve-ounce can of beer, a four-ounce glass of wine, or one shot of 80-proof liquor).
Lagunas had two prior DUI convictions. Both times, as part of sentencing and court-ordered education, he was told that if he continued to drive while intoxicated and killed someone, he could be charged with murder.
Defendant was convicted of second-degree murder under the “implied malice” doctrine. He appealed, contending there was insufficient evidence to support a murder conviction. Lagunas argued that the prosecution engineered “an all or nothing case by charging only second-degree murder, betting that no jury would let the appellant walk free after causing the death of an innocent little girl.” He contended that the court erred by not instructing the jury on a lesser offense of gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated.