A law signed by Gov. Schwarzenegger requires, after July 1, 2008, that all people applying for a driver’s license, or renewal of a driver’s license, sign a declaration with the following language: “I am hereby advised that being under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or both, impairs the ability to safely operate a motor vehicle. Therefore, it is extremely dangerous to human life to drive while under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or both. If I drive while under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or both, and as a result, a person is killed, I can be charged with murder.” (Veh. Code, § 13385, subd. (a).)
So what’s the big deal, you ask? Well, under the law, a person who causes the death of another because of criminal negligence (i.e., a person who does an act that is very dangerous to human life, but does not realize how dangerous it is) is generally considered to be less blameworthy than a person who causes the death of another because of reckless conduct (i.e., a person who knows an act is dangerous to human life and, in spite of that knowledge, the person does the act anyway). That is often the difference between murder, with its possible 15 to life sentence, and manslaughter, with its much shorter potential sentence.
So, while, under current law, a person charged with causing the death of another in a drunk driving accident might be able to argue that he or she was not aware of how dangerous it was to drink and drive, thereby enabling the person to argue that they are only guilty of manslaughter, as opposed to murder, with this new law on the books, you can expect that in all drunk driving cases where another person is killed, the District Attorney will charge the driver with murder, and, during the trial, will pull the person’s DMV application, with the signature on the declaration form described in the new law, and argue that the defendant had to know how dangerous drunk driving was, since the defendant signed the form.