Vehicular Manslaughter, Murder and DUI
The tragic death of Los Angeles Angels Pitcher Nick Adenhart as a result of a traffic accident caused by a drunk driver recently brought to the public attention a number of issues. The drunk driver who caused the accident was reportedly driving on a suspended license while already on probation for a prior DUI. He apparently was speeding with a blood alcohol level three times the legal limit. Two other people also died as a result of the accident and two others were injured.
Historically, when a person caused a death while driving under the influence of alcohol, the criminal charge would be Vehicular Manslaughter. However, as a result of recent case law and changes in the law, when a person has a prior conviction for DUI, malice may be implied to charge that person with second degree murder. The defendant in the case involving Angels Pitcher Nick Adenhart has been charged with three counts of second degree murder as well as the lesser offense of Vehicular Manslaughter.
When a defendant pleads guilty to DUI, the court advises the defendant, either in open court or by way of a document signed by the defendant, that driving under the influence of alcohol is dangerous to human life and that should the defendant continue to drive while impaired, and as a result of that driving an accident is caused and someone is killed, then that person can be charged with murder. This warning, called a "Watson Warning', can be the basis of a prosecution for murder based on implied malice. The theory is that the defendant has been advised of the dangers of drinking and driving but nevertheless, with knowledge of the dangers drove while impaired again and killed someone with "implied malice".
Felony DUI charges in Orange County or Los Angeles including Vehicular Manslaughter allow for significant prison sentences. If second degree murder is charged, the maximum sentence is then life in prison.