People v. Suazo: Implied Malice in Drunk Driving
Drinking and driving is a serious crime that carries hefty penalties in California. In California, penalties for driving under the influence are complex and take into account a variety of factors including: prior convictions, circumstances surrounding the incident, and the speed limit. The penalties can range from community service, fines, license suspension, and in some cases, jail time. However, in DUI incidents where a person is killed, the charges can increase to second-degree murder. This form of second-degree murder is also known as “Watson Murder.” In order to be found guilty of Watson Murder, the prosecution must prove “implied malice,” which is a form of malice aforethought. In order to prove implied malice, the prosecution must prove that the accused acted with conscious disregard of a risk to human life. A conviction carries a penalty of 15 years to life in prison, as well as fines. This concept is illustrated in People v. Suazo.
After attending a birthday party at a restaurant, Jesus Suazo was driving home when he ran his car off the highway and into an agricultural equipment yard, hitting the machinery. His passenger, Anna Maria Solorio Zuniga was killed as a result. When officers arrived on the scene, Jesus allegedly admitted to consuming “two buckets of beer” while at the restaurant. Suazo was later convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 15 years to life in California state prison. Suazo then appealed his conviction, arguing the evidence presented at his trial was insufficient to warrant a second-degree murder conviction. On appeal Suazo relied upon credible evidence that established he drank without intending to later drive home.
On appeal, the court examined whether the evidence established that Suazo acted with implied malice. Specifically, the court looked for whether (1) his blood-alcohol level was above the 0.08% legal limit; (2) if there was a pre-drinking intent to drive; (3) he had knowledge of the hazards of driving intoxicated; and (4) he conducted highly dangerous driving. On the scene, Suazo was given two PAS tests to determine his blood-alcohol level. The first test showed Suazo’s blood-alcohol level to be 0.139% and the second test showed his blood-alcohol level to be 0.148%. After he was placed under arrest, Suazo was transported to the hospital where another blood-alcohol level test was given. The test at the hospital determined Suazo’s blood-alcohol level to be 0.14%.
As for whether there was a pre-drinking intent to drive, Suazo argued that, when he began drinking at the restaurant, he did not have an intent to later drive. Suazo further argued that after drinking, he did not remember leaving the restaurant or driving. However, the court found that because Suazo drove himself to the restaurant and did not make any solidified plans to ride home with someone else, there was a pre-drinking intent to drive home from the restaurant later that night.
As for whether Suazo had knowledge of the hazards of driving intoxicated, the court used prior convictions to determine this. Suazo had prior conviction of driving under the influence. As a part of his plea, Suazo had to acknowledge that being under the influence of alcohol (1) impairs his ability to safely operate a vehicle; (2) is dangerous to human life while driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs; and (3) that a subsequent DUI incident that results in the loss of human life could result in a murder conviction. Because of his prior conviction with the above acknowledgements, the court found that Suazo, at the time of this DUI incident, knew of the hazards of driving while intoxicated.
Finally, as for whether Suazo conducted highly dangerous driving, the court looked at evidence gathered at the scene of the incident. The highway Suazo had been driving on prior to the incident had a posted speed limit of 70 miles per hour. The airbag control module of Suazo’s car had recorded speeds of 100 miles per hour, 95 miles per hour, and 91 miles per hour in the seconds leading up to the crash. Therefore, the court concluded that Suazo had conducted highly dangerous driving when he drove at speeds exceeding the speed limit by 20-30 miles per hour.
The court found each of these four elements satisfied, and therefore concluded that Suazo acted with implied malice. The court affirmed the lower court’s ruling and Suazo was sentenced to 15 years to life.
In Suazo’s case, the court found him guilty of second-degree murder. However, if the the prosecution had not been able to prove Suazo had implied malice, then the jury could have found him guilty of vehicular manslaughter, which carries less severe penalties. A misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter conviction carries a penalty of up to a year in county jail. A felony vehicular manslaughter conviction carries a penalty of 2, 4, or 6 years in California state prison. Having an experienced defense attorney on your side is extremely important. In a DUI case like this, a defense attorney will work to show that the prosecution did not meet the implied malice standard that a second-degree murder conviction requires, which can result in lessened charges.
If you have been charged with second-degree murder or vehicular manslaughter after a DUI incident, you need an aggressive defense attorney to fight for your freedom. With 40+ years of experience, our attorneys at Wallin & Klarich have helped thousands of clients win their cases or get their charges reduced to a lesser degree. We know the most effective defenses to argue on your behalf, and we will do everything in our power to help you achieve the best possible result in your case.
You may not be aware of all your options. Calling our office costs you nothing, but picking up the phone could be the difference between years in prison and years of freedom. Let our skilled attorneys examine your case to find the best way to avoid prison.Discover how our team can assist you. Contact us today, toll-free at (877) 4-NO-JAIL or (877) 466-5245 for a free consultation with a skilled defense attorney.