When Can a DUI Be Charged as Murder?

By Brett Snider, Esq. on March 27, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Drunken driving crashes can often be fatal, elevating a simple DUI to a full-blown murder charge.

Case in point: A drunken driver in Colorado accused of killing a 17-year-old boy in an accident Monday is now facing a first-degree murder charge for his alleged actions, reports The Denver Post. Ever Olivos-Gutierrez, 40, lacks a drivers license and has incurred "numerous" DUIs prior to Monday's fatal crash.

So when can a DUI be charged as murder?

Extreme Facts Call for Severe Charges

In a DUI crash that involves a death, prosecutors may have the option of charging a suspect with first-degree felony murder.

In most states, if a suspect caused the death of a person while committing a dangerous felony, that person can be charged with a crime called "felony murder." In states like Colorado, these dangerous felonies include arson, robbery, burglary, kidnapping, sexual assault, or fleeing from police.

Even if a fatal DUI is not eligible for a felony murder charge, it could potentially qualify as conduct that is extremely indifferent to human life. Drivers deemed to have acted so recklessly and with indifference to the risk to human life can also be charged with murder.

These murder charges are also known as "depraved heart" murders. In the Colorado case, Olivos-Gutierrez is facing a murder charge for his DUI crash under a similar legal theory.

Prosecutorial Discretion

Most states give prosecutors the option to charge DUI offenders who cause fatalities with something less than murder. For example, involuntary manslaughter charges can apply to any person who caused another's death while performing a reckless or dangerous act that was a known risk to human life.

It is not difficult for prosecutors to prove that driving while intoxicated is such a lethal risk, so involuntary manslaughter can be much easier to prove than murder for drunken drivers. Many states even have vehicular manslaughter charges which relate directly to deaths caused by reckless action (including intoxication) behind the wheel.

Prosecutors in DUI fatality cases have the option to push for murder charges or a manslaughter or DUI charge. The prosecution can offer a plea bargain or even drop charges depending on the defendant's criminal history, willingness to cooperate, or lack of evidence.

On the other hand, prosecutors also have the option to pursue murder charges for defendants with extensive criminal records, lack of remorse, or extensive evidence of wrongdoing.

In any case, DUI murder charges are serious, and a criminal defense attorney can explain how and when they would apply.

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