Last November, a 51-year-old substance abuse counselor named Sherri Wilkins was driving under the influence one evening when she hit a 31-year-old man crossing Torrance Boulevard. Wilkins allegedly drove for more than two miles with the man on her windshield before motorists stopped her at 182nd Street and Crenshaw Boulevard and took her car keys, reported the Los Angeles Times.
“In California, a person who causes a death when driving under the influence of alcohol may be charged with either vehicular manslaughter or gross vehicular manslaughter,” explained California car accident attorney James Ballidis.
The man she hit was alive at the time when police arrived but was shortly pronounced dead at a local hospital. Wilkins, who had a BAC of more than double the legal limit of .08, was arrested and charged with murder, gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, DUI causing injury, drunken driving causing injury, and leaving the scene of an accident.
DUI Murder in California
A landmark case called People v. Watson held that a person who drove drunk could be charged with second-degree murder on the basis of implied malice:
“The requisite culpability for the vehicular manslaughter charged here is gross negligence which has been defined as the exercise of so slight a degree of care as to raise a presumption of conscious indifference to the consequences. On the other hand, malice may be implied when a person, knowing that his conduct endangers the life of another, nonetheless acts deliberately with conscious disregard for life. Though these definitions bear a general similarity, they are not identical. Implied malice contemplates a subjective awareness of a higher degree of risk than does gross negligence, and involves an element of wantonness which is absent in gross negligence.”
In other words, when a person’s careless behavior goes beyond being merely grossly negligent, that individual is not guilty of manslaughter for a death that occurs but instead his or her culpability rises to the level of second-degree murder.
A 1995 case called People v. Autry outlined several criteria for determining when a DUI-related death would rise to the level of second-degree murder. According to their criteria, factors used to demonstrate implied malice included a BAC well above .08; an intention to drive prior to drinking; knowledge of how dangerous DUI is; and/or highly dangerous driving.
The Consequences in the Wilkins’ Case
Wilkins meets several of the criteria for being charged with murder, which explains why she faces this serious charge. Her BAC was more than double the legal limit and the driving behavior that she exhibited, especially driving with the victim on her windshield, was extremely dangerous. She also had a certificate in drug and alcohol counseling and was thus aware of the dangers of drunk driving, and she had faced prior DUI charges. In 2010, for example, she was charged with DUI and hit and run, although the charges had ultimately been dismissed.
In Wilkins’ case, the felony murder charges she is facing have serious consequences even beyond those normally faced by a person charged with second-degree murder. This is because Wilkins already has two prior burglary convictions. Under California’s three strikes law, a person with three serious or violent felony convictions faces a minimum sentence of 25 years to life in prison.
The surviving family members of the deceased victim may also sue Wilkins for wrongful death. Civil lawsuits are distinct from criminal proceedings and civil lawsuits allow victims to take private legal action to obtain compensation for their losses. The burden of proof in a civil lawsuit is a lesser burden than required in a criminal case, and wrongful death actions can sometimes result in millions of dollars in damages paid by the defendant to the victim or surviving family members.
Under both civil and criminal laws, California thus creates many deterrents to drinking and driving. Wilkins failed to obey the laws despite the serious consequences of a DUI murder conviction and a potential civil lawsuit. She now awaits arraignment and possible incarceration as well as a possible civil action brought by the family members of the person she killed.
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