The People v. Watson
In the early morning hours of January 3, 1979, Robert Watson got into his vehicle after a night of drinking. He sped away from the bar he had patronized. Watson narrowly avoided a collision after running a red light, braking in time to come to a stop in the intersection. After that stop, Watson continued driving, at a speed nearly double that of the speed limit. At the next intersection, Watson was unable to brake in time to avoid slamming into the back of a subcompact car carrying three people. Two of those three were thrown from the vehicle, and their injuries led to their deaths. Thirty minutes after the accident, Watson’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) was nearly three times higher than the legal limit.
The prosecution in the case of The People of California v. Watson decided that Watson’s actions went beyond gross negligence, and they did something unprecedented in the state of California: they charged the defendant with second degree murder. The defense challenged the charge, and the case went before the Supreme Court of California. Justices there ruled that the People of California could try Robert Watson for murder.
This decision in The People v. Watson set a precedent in California courts that has since changed DUI enforcement in the state. Now, other drivers may be charged with murder for fatal DUI crashes. Murder charges are more difficult to prove, because the prosecution must demonstrate that malice was involved in the killing—that the driver knew what he was doing could result in someone dying, but he did it anyway—so drivers in California must now sign a document that states they are fully aware of the dangers of driving while intoxicated. This document is known as a Watson advisement, and its purpose is to aid the prosecution in proving malice was involved in the case of a future DUI crash that results in death.
California is not the only state since then to charge DUI defendants with murder, and some reports indicate that it is increasingly more common to see murder charges accompany DUI charges after a fatal crash.
Some argue that charging a defendant with murder after a fatal DUI crash is going too far, that it is too much to imply that any driver should know how dangerous it is to drive while drunk. Some argue that the Watson advisement is a form of entrapment, sometimes used against defendants years after their signing. Perhaps attorneys in Watson’s time, three decades ago, might have made a convincing argument that it is unreasonable to expect all drivers to know how dangerous it is to drive while drunk, but no more. By now, it is a well established fact that driving while intoxicated dangerously impairs drivers. That message is spread through public ad campaigns heard on radios, seen on TV, and read on billboards, signs, and in magazines. Codifying DUIs as a criminal activity and hypervisible DUI enforcement also reinforce the idea that a person should never drive while under the influence of alcohol.
Motor vehicle crashes are the number one killer of Americans under the age of thirty. Cars and trucks are dangerous machines under the best operating conditions, and they are lethal weapons in the hands of impaired drivers, the worst part is that many drivers don’t even have insurance 4 motor trade for their cars. You would not be surprised to be charged with murder if you took a gun out to a crowded mall and started shooting around wildly, even if you weren’t taking aim at any person in particular; don’t be surprised when you’re charged for murder because you indiscriminately disregarded all concern for anybody else’s life when you got drunk and got behind the wheel.