Will California See Harsher Punishments For DUI Homicides?

Law enforcement and government agencies believe that it is important to educate the public about DUIs. By explaining the dangers of impaired driving, it will help make people think twice about getting behind the wheel after consuming alcohol or using any drugs.

In previous articles, we have talked about DUI grant money from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and about their campaigns to spread the word. There are various efforts around the country to inform people and dissuade them from driving under the influence. But, according to the Tulare County District Attorney’s Office, the number of DUI homicides has been steady the last three years, perhaps even increasing.

Setting aside any thoughts about whether or not the campaigns are effective, we should also consider how the DA’s office handles the prosecution and its categorization of the crimes.

If there is a death linked to a DUI-related accident, then possible DUI charges include second-degree murder, gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, and vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated.

Vehicular manslaughter can be charged as either a misdemeanor or felony, so it can be considered the lightest of the three punishments. It is also typically a result of negligence. Gross vehicular manslaughter goes a step further as it is either a reckless act that goes beyond “ordinary negligence,” or if the accused has two ore more prior DUI misdemeanors. Second-degree murder is charged if the defendant had “malice aforethought,” meaning that they were aware they were impaired but still decided to drive. In this case, the defendant didn’t care enough about the consequences of driving impaired nor their ability to hurt others.

Malice aforethought doesn’t need a particular motive – one doesn’t need to target any specific person to be in this situation. With this in mind, prosecutors can crack down on the idea that with so many ads and public notices about the dangers of DUI, the public should be aware of the consequences. It would be safe to say that each and every one of us should be conscientious enough to decide not to drive impaired.

In the past, California prosecutors have used the issuance of a California driver’s license as proof that there was malicious aforethought because a person has to acknowledge when getting one that criminal charges are possible if one drives under the influence. So, if you are involved in an accident that causes injury or death shortly after driving under a lighted sign that reads “Buzzed Driving is Drunk Driving,” is that enough to prove malice aforethought?

Currently, there are no new legislation in the works that would change any of the penalties or parameters surrounding DUI homicides. However, if the scope of DUI campaigns continues its trajectory, it may become harder for defense attorneys to convince a jury that the defendant was within “ordinary negligence” parameters and doesn’t fit the definition of “malice aforethought”.

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Holiday DUI Enforcement Kicks Off

As is the case when any holiday rolls around, law enforcement plan to increase their presence and be extra vigilant in looking for anyone who may be under the influence. This is all in the hopes of supporting public safety and prompting people to make safe, good decisions during the holiday season.

This year, the enforcement period started this past Friday, December 13th, and will last through New Year’s Day.

In a previous statement, CHP Commissioner Warren Stanley reminded the public that “impairment of any kind while driving is illegal. Alcohol, cannabis, or legal or illegal drugs can all affect your driving. Impaired driving is a serious crime that can lead to an arrest, serious injury, or death.”

Since the announcement, police departments in Cypress, Fontana, and Lodi have stated that they will be holding DUI checkpoints during the enforcement period. Many more will be announcing the same in the coming days. At the moment, the specific locations remain undisclosed, but these checkpoints serve as a reminder to all drivers to be careful. With all the holiday parties that happen during this winter season, it is important that people be aware of their conditions and make smart choices.

As the CHP slogan says, “Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over.”

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December is National Impaired Driving Prevention Month

Starting with Thanksgiving, we have now kicked off into holiday season. So, it is no wonder that December tends to see the highest rate of under the influence driving incidents. Since 1981, every president has proclaimed the month of December as the National Impaired Driving Prevention Month (previously known as National Drunk & Drugged Driving Prevention Month).

According to the Presidential Proclamation published on December 4th, “During National Impaired Driving Prevention Month, we reaffirm our commitment to preventing tragedies from impaired driving by making the responsible decision to drive sober. We also remember the victims of impaired driving, pray for the grieving families of those whose lives have been taken, and honor the law enforcement professionals who work to keep our roads safe.”

In line with the annual proclamation, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration has announced that law enforcement officers across the country will be on the look out for impaired drivers throughout the holiday season. They have extended their media campaign through January 1, 2020 to educate the public regarding the risks of marijuana-impaired driving and raising awareness of their “If you Feel Different, You Drive Different” campaign.

According to the NHTSA website, “Some good news: alcohol-impaired-driving fatalities decreased by 3.6% from 2017 to 2018, accounting for 29% of all crash fatalities in 2018 – the lowest percentage since 1982, when NHTSA started reporting alcohol data. Although drunk-driving-related deaths have fallen, they still total more than 10,000 lives per year.” It may still seem like a long way to go, but public awareness and education seem to be helping.

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DUI Trial for High Schoolers

If you were a child of the 90s, you probably remember school programs like D.A.R.E. In many of today’s high schools, they continue to provide programs and events like “Every 15 Minutes” that strive to educate young children and students about the consequences of using drugs.

This past month, Marin County provided 100 high school students an opportunity to see how a DUI trial is conducted. As part of a program organized by the Marin County Office of Education, the hearing proceeded much like how an actual DUI trial. It was held in partnership with local high schools, the district attorney, the public defender, and the sheriff’s office.

The purpose of the program is to help give “young people a heightened awareness of their personal responsibility and lead them to making good choices.”

An actual judge of the Marin Superior Court attended and presided over the trial. A select few of the participating teens served as the student advisory jury, eventually coming up with a verdict at the end of the trial. They were presented with video evidence, arguments from both the prosecutor and the defense, as well as testimonies from the arresting officers and criminal forensic scientists. Through this practice, the verdict was used as an opportunity to educate the students, and then the final judgment was made by Judge Sheila Sha Lichtblau, presiding.

One of the organizers of the program, Public Defender Jose Varela was quoted, “Prevention works in medicine and it works in the criminal justice system. Exposing students to the reality of a DUI trial creates a real context for decisions they will make about drinking and driving or getting into a car with someone who is too impaired to drive.”

Much like our previous article highlighting the costs associated with DUI charges, knowing how much the situation will cost you and what you may have to go through beforehand will help you think twice about your choice. And it seems Marin County believes that the knowledge can’t be taught early enough.

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Grant Money for San Diego’s DUI Prosecutions

In San Diego, DUI offenders and defense attorneys will be up against some new challenges within the prosecutor’s office. The San Diego City Attorney’s office recently announced that they won another grant funded by the California Office of Traffic and Safety. With this grant of $198,302, the office will continue to support highly-trained prosecutors for DUI cases.

According to City Attorney Mara Elliot, “[the] grant allows our highly specialized prosecution team to work closely with law enforcement to hold accountable those who endanger our community.”

Under the grant, the city can utilize a “vertical” system of prosecution where the same deputy city attorney will work the case from start to finish. Members will also work with California’s Traffic Safety Resource Prosecutor Program in order to better tackle the continuing problem of drug-impaired driving. They will help expand the knowledge and resources required to do so.

The announcement by the City Attorney’s office was vague in how the program expects to support and create a “highly specialized” prosecution team, so it is hard to picture how much better of a team will be created with this money.

I am all for a better educated prosecution team to help ensure that society is safer, now and in the future. It’s important to hold those accountable for causing harm and to see that they are given the appropriate terms of justice. Undoubtedly, the vertical system will be beneficial for the prosecution, allowing for a more consistently operated case.

However, I also believe it will be beneficial for the prosecution team to be able to better communicate with the offenders. Perhaps educating them about good ways to follow up with the offenders post-prosecution will allow for a better support system to exist. This will in turn keep these offenders from becoming repeat offenders.

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