Why Aren’t Drunk Drivers Charged With Murder?

Michael GrossmanDecember 29, 2017 6 minutes

Drunk driving is a terrible crime. Unsuspecting victims are hurt and killed every day by this all-too-familiar pattern: Someone is over-served, stumbles out to his car to go home, and plows into another vehicle or pedestrian to dire effect.

If a police investigation proves that the intoxicated driver was responsible for hurting someone, that driver may face charges of Intoxication Assault. If those injuries prove fatal, the charges are upgraded to Intoxication Manslaughter--a serious offense that could be punished with a fine up to $10,000 and a prison sentence of 2 to 20 years per count.

While that sentence may seem steep to some, it doesn't always feel like enough to others. Those close to the victim (and sometimes outsiders who learn the details of the accident) sometimes believe the punishment doesn't match the gravity of the crime--that when someone dies, it should be tried as a murder.

Most recently, I have seen that argument being made in the comments section of various news sites in relation to a young mother who was killed by a DWI driver in Corpus Christi. Despite the fact that the folks who profess this belief are voicing a sentiment that I agree with on a guttural level, as a technical legal matter, I feel a need to explain why this thinking is flawed.

What Happened?

On December 23, allegedly intoxicated driver John Andrew Alvarado, 25, was driving east on Saratoga Boulevard in Corpus Christi. According to preliminary police reports, Alvarado sideswiped another vehicle in the 3700 block of Saratoga at approximately 3:00 a.m. He kept moving after the initial impact, crashing his car into the rear of another vehicle driven by 41-year-old Brenda Rodriguez. The force of that collision pushed Ms. Rodriguez' vehicle into oncoming traffic where it hit yet another car head-on.

Ms. Rodriguez suffered fatal injuries and died at the scene of the crash. Emergency response personnel rescued her two sons, Marcos (11) and Brendon (10) Cesarez, from the badly-damaged vehicle. They were taken to Driscoll Children's Hospital where they were treated for critical injuries.

Police at the scene determined that Alvarado showed signs of intoxication following the crash. He was arrested and faces charges of intoxication manslaughter and two counts of intoxication assault.

Many Aren't Satisfied with the Charges.

Like most people, I learned about this unhappy incident from Internet headlines. Reading through people's comments on sites that allow user feedback, I saw that many are seriously upset that another life was taken by a drunk driver. I agree with their outrage at the idea of drunk driving, but our harmony stops when they start trying to rewrite the law to punish the defendants more harshly.

For instance, here's a Facebook post about the incident put up by the local news:

Take a look at the comments in that post and you'll mostly find people reacting with sorrow and empathy for the tragedy the family is suffering, which they're right to do. Sprinkled throughout their condolences, though, you'll also find several people insisting that the right course of action is to try John Alvarado for actual murder instead of manslaughter--or in one extreme case, "take him out back and shoot him." If you don't want to go to Facebook, on the right is an example of the comments.

I understand how tempers can run hot after learning a mother was taken away from her family and her young sons were seriously hurt. But despite the court of public opinion's verdict, real prosecutors must know not to pursue murder charges in circumstances like these.

There's a Reason Manslaughter and Murder are Handled Differently.

Everybody howling for the drunk driver's blood is right that he should be punished, but their belief about the methods and severity of that punishment are exaggerated by their inflamed sense of injustice. Based on how the law is written and used, fatal drunk driving accidents don't meet the requirements of genuine murder charges.

It's important to understand the concept of "case elements." Case elements are like the ingredients of a particular type of case. For any given type of allegation that can be made in a court of law, there is a predetermined list of these essential case elements. The most important thing to understand about case elements is that they're fundamental to our justice system. No one can be successfully prosecuted for criminal or civil wrong unless the accuser can prove that the misconduct meets ALL of the elements of the offense the defendant is charged with. If the facts of the case show that the accused engaged in some of the elements of the offense, that's not good enough. You can only win if you can convince a jury that all of the elements of the charge have been met.

To illustrate this, let's consider the case elements for theft, which are: 1) the unauthorized taking 2) of another's property 3) with the intent to permanently deprive the owner of the use or benefit of the property.

These elements have a pretty plain meaning, so I won't bother translating them. But we stand to gain a lot of perspective by attempting to answer the question: why are those the elements of theft?

The answer is quite revealing. You see, if someone takes another's property without permission but they do not intend to permanently deprive them of said property, that is not the same thing as taking it with the intention of keeping it forever. Likewise, if they take someone's property with the intention of keeping it forever, yet they had permission to do so, that also is not theft.

For instance, if I see a car running outside of a store and I hop in and drive it around the parking lot, park it, and then leave, I have not stolen the car. To be clear, what I did was certainly illegal. But it is not the same crime as actually stealing the car.

Let's imagine that I were to be arrested the day after this little joyride. Soon after the arrest, the prosecutor will have to decide what to charge me with, and he or she would be quite foolish to try and prosecute me for theft. In order to meet the legal burden of proving that my misconduct meets all of the elements of the criminal charge of theft, the prosecutor would have to show beyond a reasonable doubt that I engaged in the unauthorized taking of another's property with the intent to permanently deprive them of that property. However, the fact that I returned the car right after my joyride is incontrovertible evidence that I did not intend to permanently deprive them of their property.

Therefore, as a technical matter, what I did was not theft, because my conduct failed to meet the elements of theft. Should the prosecutor decide to pursue theft charges against me, they would surely lose.

See where I'm going with this?

What Exactly Constitutes Murder?

The elements of a first degree murder (in Texas known as capital murder) charge are: 1) The unlawful 2) killing 3) of a person 4) by another person 5) with malice aforethought, meaning it was planned or premeditated. Without proving all of these elements beyond a reasonable doubt, the prosecution loses.

If we apply these requirements to the death of Brenda Rodriguez, we see that a trial for first degree murder would almost certainly lead to acquittal for Mr. Alvarez. Almost no jury could be convinced that someone plans to take a life when they drink too much at a bar. Is it incredibly likely that you can hurt someone while driving drunk? Heck yeah, it is. But doing something incredibly foolish is not the same thing as willfully plotting to kill someone. Without any proof that such premeditation took place, all elements of the case cannot be fulfilled, which would mean an acquittal. No one would be saying that he didn't commit a crime, but rather that he didn't commit the specific one they tried to pin on him.

A widely-known example of prosecutors' reach extending beyond their grasp is the trial of Florida woman Casey Anthony. After the death of her daughter Caylee, prosecutors charged her with first degree murder, aggravated child abuse, and aggravated manslaughter of a child.

Despite public certainty that Anthony was guilty, the prosecutors were unable to get a conviction because of a lack of concrete evidence that she had a hand in her daughter's demise. To be candid the evidence seems to show that Casey Anthony was kind of an awful person, but it did not clearly demonstrate that she killed her daughter. Is someone evil if, say, their child drowns and then they dispose of the body? Of course. But it's not the same thing as killing someone. Not morally, not legally.

All of the people who understandably want to see the drunk driver severely punished for Brenda Rodriguez's death are right to be angry. But what they don't seem to be considering is that murder is a very specific act, as defined by law. The fact that someone is killed isn't the determining factor. For instance, if I shoot and kill someone who breaks into my house, no reasonable person considers that to be murder. But someone died, so why isn't it murder? The technical answer is actually the simple one. Murder is a specific crime, defined by its particular elements. Anything that is similar but different (fails to meet all of the elements) is not murder. Lawmakers can come up with all kinds of lesser crimes with their own unique elements, but those of murder are clear.

The sad part is that sometimes people get what they ask for and a prosecutor will swing for the fences and try to prosecute someone for murder when what they did actually resembles manslaughter. When this happens, it most likely will result in the accused walking free.