Is Being Unconscious While DUI a Defense to Murder Charge?
Michael Stein died instantly from the impact; Grace was severely injured.
Ferguson was charged with second degree murder under Penal Code § 187(a), as well as DUI related charges. At trial, the prosecution put forth testimony that Ferguson, a Lance Corporal in the Marines and stationed at nearby Camp Pendleton, attended several classes on safe driving which included warnings about DUI.
Some of his fellow Marines in his unit also testified about listening to weekly “liberty briefings” that included additional warnings about DUI. The Marines testified that Ferguson had most likely listened to fifty such briefings while in the Marines. In fact, Ferguson underwent such a briefing about eight hours earlier in the very day of the crash.Summary in 75 Words or Less: An unconscious DUI driver can be criminally liable for second degree murder under an implied malice theory if the jury finds the driver voluntarily consumed alcohol to excess and by doing so, showed a reckless disregard for the safety of others by then driving a car. In this case, the driver got into his car and then passed out while driving, before slamming into another car and killing one of its occupants.
Toward the end of trial, Ferguson requested a jury instruction on the defense of unconsciousness, as several witnesses at the scene testified he appeared confused at the scene as to what happened. A police officer who interviewed him after the crash also testified that Ferguson had no memory of the crash. The suggestion was that he was asleep at impact.
The unconsciousness instruction proposed told the jury that if they found Ferguson had voluntarily become intoxicated (CALCRIM 626), they could find him guilty of the lesser included offense of involuntary manslaughter. This would greatly reduce Ferguson’s punishment. The trial court denied Ferguson’s request.
Ferguson was then convicted and sentenced to fifteen years to life in prison.
He then appealed, claiming the trial court erred in refusing his proposed jury instruction based on voluntary intoxication resulting in unconsciousness.
The Court further pointed out that CALCRIM 626, the jury instruction sought, was specifically excluded from use in any act involving driving of a vehicle under Penal Code § 192.
As such, Ferguson’s sentence remained fifteen years to life.
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