Back in 2012, Louie Robert Villa, of Santa Ana pleaded guilty to a California DUI. When Villa was sentenced on the DUI he was told by the judge, “You are hereby advised that being under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or both, impairs your ability to safely operate a motor vehicle. Therefore, it is extremely dangerous to human life to drive while under the influence or alcohol or drugs, or both. If you continue to drive while under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or both, and, as a result of that driving, someone is killed, you can be charged with murder.”
The advisement, known as the Watson advisement, is routinely read to people who are pleading guilty to a California DUI by the judge in their case.
Prior to the landmark case of People v. Watson in 1981, a DUI suspect could only be charged with manslaughter if their drunk driving led to the death of someone. To be charged with murder, a person had to intend to kill someone else to be charged and convicted of murder. However, the California Supreme Court said that only “implied malice” needed to be present for someone to be charged and convicted of murder in the context of a DUI. This meant that a person need not have actual intent to kill, but that they acted with reckless disregard for human life.
The practical effect of the Watson case was that the advisement became a part of sentencing for convicted drunk driving defendants. This allowed prosecutors to find implied malice, or that the defendant acted with reckless disregard for human life, and thus charge second degree murder, should the defendant drive drunk again and kill someone. Although common sense tells us that it is dangerous to drive drunk, when a drunk driver kills someone and they haven’t suffered any prior DUI convictions, they will still be charged with manslaughter unless the prosecutor can prove that they actually knew it was dangerous to human life to drive drunk.
Last week, Villa, now 29 years old, was street racing with 24-year-old Ricardo Tolento, in Santa Ana when his BMW collided with a pickup truck which was making a left turn. The driver of the pickup truck was Orange County Register editor Eugene Harbrecht. The impact of the collision caused Harbrecht’s truck to land on its side 50 feet way and catch fire. Although good Samaritans pulled Harbrecht out of the vehicle, he was pronounced dead at the hospital.
Villa was injured and taken to the hospital. Tolento fled the scene but was apprehended a short time later.
“An illegal street race and a repeat drunk driver who had been warned about the dangers of driving under the influence collided in the middle of the day on a Santa Ana street, resulting in a tragedy that didn’t have to happen,” O.C. District Attorney Todd Spitzer said in a statement. “Because of the selfish actions of two strangers, a wife will never see her husband again and many more lost a treasured friend and colleague.”
Tolento faces up to 11 years in prison if convicted on all charges, none of which include murder. Why? Likely, this was Tolento’s first DUI, which means he was never expressly advised that it is dangerous to drive drunk, making it difficult for prosecutors to prove implied malice.
Villa, on the other hand, was charged with second degree murder. Why? He was read the Watson advisement back in 2012 and was made expressly aware that it was dangerous to drive drunk, giving prosecutors the implied malice they needed to charge murder. In addition to the murder charge, he was charged with one felony count each of driving under the influence of alcohol causing great bodily injury while street racing and driving under the influence of alcohol with a blood alcohol level of greater than 0.08 percent, misdemeanor street racing, and misdemeanor driving on a revoked or suspended license.