The Death Penalty for Drunk Driving?

Posted by Lawrence Taylor on June 24th, 2011

Yes, the death penalty. In a drunk driving case. In these United States. For murder…… No, not involuntary manslaughter. Not vehicular homicide. Murder. And first-degree murder. As in pointing a gun at someone and pulling the trigger. MADD has been so successful in their political pressure campaigns that they’ve actually gotten some courts and legislatures to create a new type of crime: DUI murder.

Wait a minute, you say. I thought you had to INTEND to kill a person before it’s murder. You have to "premeditate" and that kind of thing, right? Well, yes and no. Each state is a little different, of course, but most follow similar laws. And those laws generally break a homicide ("the killing of another human being") into different categories. The first is excusable homicide — where, because of self-defense or other justification, the death is not considered a crime. Next is "manslaughter" — basically, a killing that is not murder. There are usually two kinds of manslaughter: voluntary and involuntary. Voluntary manslaughter is sometimes called a killing in the "heat of passion"; you lacked the time or ability to reflect on the act. Involuntary manslaughter is an unintentional homicide: you didn’t mean to do it, but you caused a death by your negligence or recklessness.

When a drunk driver causes an accident in which someone is killed, he is usually going to be facing involuntary manslaughter charges. Some states use different terms, such as "vehicular manslaughter" or "vehicular homicide". Either way, the death was unintentional, but it was caused by the driver’s negligent or reckless conduct.

And then there’s murder. That’s what you see on TV and read about in the papers: someone plans to kill someone else and, in cold blood, takes his life. But just to complicate things, in most states there are two kinds of murder: first degree and second degree. Murder in the first degree usually requires meaningful premeditation: you thought about it, planned it, carried it out. Second degree murder only requires a mental state known as "malice". What is malice? Well, usually it means the intent to kill someone: you intended to kill that person, but it may have happened so quickly that you never really thought it out. Intent, but no premediation.

So where does DUI fit into all of this?

It seems pretty obvious that it belongs in the "involuntary manslaughter" category — an unintentional accident but with negligence/recklessness. However…. This idea of "malice" is pretty vague. Very vague. Actually, it can pretty much mean whatever you want. Perfect, really, for a group like MADD looking for new ways to "get tough " on drunk drivers.

A prosecutor in California came up with a bright idea a few years ago. He simply ignored the vehicular manslaughter statute and charged a drunk driver with second-degree murder. And, DUI being a pretty unpopular crime, actually managed to convict him. The defendant appealed, saying the prosecution can’t just invent new crimes: he has to charge the offense specified by the legislature. The California Supreme Court disagreed, saying that he could be charged and convicted of murder if he acted with "malice" — that is, if he "does an act with a high probability that it will result in death and does it with a base antisocial motive and with a wanton disregard for human life".

Base antisocial motive? What’s that? The Court tried to clarify:

"One who willfully consumes alcoholic beverages to the point of intoxication, knowing that he must operate a motor vehicle, thereby combining sharply impaired physical and mental facilities with a vehicle capable of great force and speed, reasonably may be held to exhibit a conscious disregard of the safety of others." People v. Watson, 30 Cal. 3d 290 (1981)

Well, the problem is that the Court was pretty much describing ANY drunk driver. Recognizing that this opened the gates a bit wide, the courts have tried to limit over-zealous prosecutors by requiring a more serious type of malice. They came up with "conscious indifference": A drunk driver can be charged with murder if his state of mind was, "I know my conduct is dangerous to others, but I don’t care if someone is hurt or killed." Still pretty vague. Doesn’t alcohol itself cause indifference? And how do you know what’s in someone’s head when he’s drunk? Well, it turns out that you can now prove malice if you can show that the defendant knew drinking and driving could be dangerous. Of course, everyone knows that, right?

So where does that leave us? Any DUI defendant who knows drunk driving is dangerous can be charged with murder?

Apparently so. In People v. Murray, 275 Cal.Rptr. 498 (1990), the appellate court upheld a DUI murder conviction where the prosecution proved he had attended a DUI education class and told someone he had learned a lot from it. This was enough to show that he was aware that drunk driving was dangerous and so he acted with "malice". And, thus, murder.

With this kind of legal reasoning, it’s only a matter of time before we’re looking at the death penalty in a drunk driving case, right? Well, on April 8, 1997, a jury in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, came back with a first degree murder conviction in a DUI case involving a traffic accident with two deaths. They recommended a sentence of life without the possibility of parole.

The prosecutor had argued for the death penalty.



  • Bryan

    Reading this gave me a hard on. Hopefully we can eventually get to the point were the death penalty can and will be applied to even first time offenders.

    Blow a 0.08? Enjoy your stay in hell, bitch. Eventually, it’ll get to the point were its like smoking, everyone who refuses to quit will be dead. Doesn’t get any better than that, imo.

  • Kenny

    And then after that we can start the death penalty for other types of traffic violations too. Late for work? Don't feel like waiting for the next green light? Turn signal bulb burnt out? Have fun being dead. And then after that we can kill people who don't look before they cross the street. And we can start burning women at the stake who we believe are practicing witchcraft. And then get the people who talk on the phone while ordering food. And then we'll get people who don't pay their credit cards bill on time. And we'll keep going until there's nothing left but judges. And then they can sentence each other to death for daring to judge another human being. We're supposed to be progressing as humans, not going back to the medieval methods. It's bad enough we have the abomination that is congress making the laws that we have to live by, do we really need non-profit organizations making stupid laws too? Please tell me someone has a link to a petition I can sign to get this man out of prison.

  • Jennifer

    I have no sympathy for drunk drivers who kill. It’s not like an accidental killing. I say this as someone who is with an alcoholic. I love him ery much but I tell him drunk drivers should be the ones to die in wrecks. Now that he has been the victim of a major car accident where some other idiot was at fault (not drunk), I think he sees my point. Drunk driver’s do not deserve to walk away when they kill someone. They should die in the wreck or face the death penalty.

  • When I initially commented I clicked the “Notify me when new comments are added” checkbox and now each time a comment is added I get three emails with the
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  • Miriam

    Jennifer, I bet that the “idiot” who caused your boyfriend’s traffic accident knew that distractions and traffic violations could be dangerous. I also find it interesting that the at-fault party was not drunk; he could (and did) cause an accident without alcohol listed as a factor. Now, if this person had been unfortunate enough to have consumed a couple of beers shortly before the crash, he would most likely be serving time in state prison, even if alcohol was not a factor in the crash. This could easily be true even if your boyfriend had caused the accident.

    I do have sympathy for drunk drivers. Sure, they took their car to the bar, but wouldn’t that indicated that they didn’t plan on drinking too much to get home? But the thing about alcohol is that it’s hard to tell when you’ve had too much. For many, it’s hard to say, “No, to that round of shots their friends just bought them. They don’t think twice about how much they’ve actually consumed because they feel fine. So, they get in their cars. They just want to get home. They don’t believe that they’re really a danger, even though they would probably say that drunk driving is dangerous. They may not even acknowledge that they’re actually drunk. Yet, if they’re involved in a serious traffic accident (even one in which they’re not at fault), the state will throw the book at them. Not to mention they’ll have to live with the crippling torment of guilt.

    Meanwhile, the soccer mom who isn’t watching the road as she’s trying to control her brood causes a fatal crash. She isn’t charged with anything, even though she knew that she should have been watching the road. She doesn’t face an automatic license suspension. She doesn’t face jail time. She has the freedom to attend therapy sessions to help her work through her guilt. Do you have sympathy for her?

    Let’s face it. Alcoholics aren’t popular. Society views them as weak parasites that beat their spouses, abuse their children, and cause horrific traffic accidents in which they walk away unscathed. They are too selfish to stop, except, they’re actually not… There is actually biological evidence which indicates that alcoholics become addicted to and “need” alcohol in the same way heroin addicts become and “need” heroine. How many other laws do you know of which so harshly punish the consequences stemming from a medical condition?

    If you’re still on the bandwagon of vengeance, then consider this: Many of the laws in place which serve to catch and convict many DUI defendants have been criticized as being unconstitutional. For example, how many suspects are charged with a new crime simply for invoking their right to not incriminate themselves (for example, refusing to blow into a Breathalyzer because you know that such tests are notoriously inaccurate)? How many suspects are convicted of a crime which they did not commit, but could have committed (for example, sitting in a car with the heater on while intoxicate, and waiting for a sober friend to arrive). If you care to know more, Google “DUI Unconstitutional). Sadly, the list goes on and on… You may not care that DUI offenders lose their rights, but you should care that the legal system is based on precedent. If you don’t understand what that means, I don’t think I can explain it to you…

  • IronOx

    While emotionally I would love to see the death penalty as punishment for any DUI that is not the way to handle this. Simply sending some one to jail does nothing but make their situation worse which adds to the stress and the problems that made them drink in the first place. If we help people and get them both the psychological help they need to beat the problem, and the help needed to alleviate the problems that caused them to drink in the first place the problem is actually solved.