RISE IN PROSECUTIONS UNDER THIRD DEGREE MURDER IN CASES INVOLVING HOMICIDE WHILE DUI

There are many cases that have come up in the news involving murder charges and DUI. Oklahoma authorities recently charged Adacia Chambers of DUI and second-degree murder, when she allegedly crashed through a crowd of homecoming spectators, killing four people. Just this month, defendants in Virginia, Kentucky and California were convicted of felony murder after causing fatal accidents while DUI. How does this relate to Pennsylvania law?

Pennsylvania has seen its share of DUI-related murder cases. In 2014, one defendant from Delaware County was found guilty of third-degree murder after consuming the equivalent of seven drinks and causing multiple vehicle crashes, ultimately killing a woman. That same year, a Lancaster man pled guilty to third-degree murder for the killing of a high school student, after going on a reckless driving, weaving and alcohol/heroin binge.  Just a year prior, another defendant from Philadelphia pled guilty to third-degree murder and was sentenced to 10—20 years in prison, after killing a decorated Philadelphia police officer while DUI. In each of these cases, the defendants were charged with Homicide by Vehicle – DUI Related, but ultimately convicted of murder.

It begs the question why some cases are prosecuted under the severest vehicle code violation (Homicide by Vehicle – DUI Related), rather than one of the severest criminal code violations (murder). Under 75 Pa.C.S. § 3735 – Homicide by Vehicle – DUI Related, a defendant is guilty if he or she unintentionally causes the death of another person while DUI. This crime is graded as a second-degree felony with sentence of 3 – 10 years’ incarceration. In contrast, under 18 Pa.C.S. § 2502(c), third-degree murder is classified as “all other kinds of murder” that is committed with malice, and not intentional or committed in the course of a felony.  Third-degree murder is graded as a first-degree felony with a maximum sentence of 40 years’ incarceration.

As you can see from above, vehicular homicide while DUI specifically addresses unintentional behavior. Under the crimes code, however, criminal homicide involves intentional, knowing, reckless or negligent behavior, which is ultimately classified as murder or manslaughter.   Homicide, therefore, can incorporate unintentional, but grossly reckless behavior. Thus, in cases where the defendant is a repeat DUI offender or cases which involve drastic facts and unconscionable behavior while DUI, wouldn’t prosecutors want to pursue lengthier murder charges, as opposed to vehicular homicide charges?

The answer to that may be unanswerable. The decision to pursue charges under the vehicle code or criminal code is ultimately up to the prosecutor. It is a prosecutor’s burden to prove each and every element of an offense. The term malice relates to a defendant’s behavior and state of mind. Jurors may ultimately disagree whether a person driving while DUI actually has a malicious state of mind. However, recent cases in Pennsylvania and throughout the United States have shown that prosecutors are stepping up in how they treat DUI-related homicide cases. This may mean an increase in prosecutions under the crimes code when the defendant is DUI.

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