According to the Los Angeles Times, Bani Duarte, a woman charged with murder and driving under the influence this week, had previous DUI arrests that were erroneously never prosecuted.
On March 29, Bani Duarte caused a car collision in Huntington Beach which resulted in the fatalities of teenagers from Las Vegas. Bani Duarte is a twenty-nine year old resident of San Clemente, and was previously arrested two years ago for driving under the influence. In 2016, she was detained in San Clemente for misdemeanor driving under the influence. She was twenty-seven years old at the time. According to law enforcement reports, she was discovered by a deputy in her illegally parked Sport Utility Vehicle in a Circle K parking lot. She was in the driver’s seat when the Orange County Sheriff’s deputy came upon her and her vehicle sprawled across multiple spaces in the parking lot.
According to Orange County Sheriff’s Department spokesperson Ray Grangoff, the deputy on the 2016 incident with Bani Duarte failed to forward the driving under the influence report to the Orange County District Attorney’s office for prosecution. Had the deputy done so, the district attorney’s office would have reviewed the report to determine if enough evidence existed to prosecute the driving under the influence case, and therefore file charges against the driver.
On the date of the 2016 incident, the report indicates that Bani Duarte’s blood-alcohol level was 0.17 percent. According to the report, the deputy searched her vehicle and discovered empty bottles. There was reason for the deputy to believe the bottles were previously filled with vodka. Bani Duarte claimed the bottles were her passenger’s bottles and not hers. Bani Duarte was ultimately detained at the Orange County Sheriff’s Department jail, where she was cited and released. Although, she was not prosecuted for this incident her driver’s license was suspended by the Department of Motor Vehicles. Her license was ultimately reinstated in June 2017.
As for the March 29 fatal crash, she has been charged by the Orange County District Attorney’s Office with three counts of murder and one count of driving under the influence causing injury. The district attorney’s office has also alleged sentence enhancements for the infliction of great bodily injury. The Huntington Beach Police Department report from the fatal incident revealed that her blood-alcohol level an hour after the car collision was 0.28 percent. The legal limit in California is .08 percent blood-alcohol level.
At the scene of the accident, Huntington Police Department officers searched her Hyundai Sonata and her personal effects. They found a one-ounce bottle of vodka in her purse which was not completely empty. They also found an emptied twenty-four-ounce malt drink in a can
Bani Duarte told the Huntington Beach police officers that she had only two vodka sodas and a jello shot that day at Stag Bar + Kitchen, and Baja Sharkeez on the Balboa Peninsula in Newport Beach.
According to a witness, Bani Duarte’s vehicle swerved while traveling on Pacific Coast Highway. She struck a curb while attempting to make a left turn to West Coast Highway. After passing Prospect Street, Bani Duarte parked her car and exited the vehicle. It was at this point that the witness and his friends offered to drive her because they thought she was intoxicated. Instead, she returned to her car and continued to Huntington Beach. The witness contacted law enforcement while following Bani Duarte.
She ultimately collided with a Toyota at Pacific Coast Highway and Magnolia Street in Huntington Beach. According to the witness, she was speeding at seventy-nine miles per hour when she rear-ended the Toyota. The Toyota was waiting at a red light, and the force of the crash threw the Toyota into the intersection and into a pole where it was engulfed in flames.
The four teenagers occupying the Toyota were seventeen year old Brooke Hawley, eighteen year old Dylan Mack, seventeen year old A.J. Rossi, and Alexis Vargas. They were in town from Las Vegas on spring break. Only Alexis Vargas survived the collision.
Huntington Police Department officers arrested Bani Duarte at the collision scene for driving under the influence and gross vehicular manslaughter. She was booked into jail on a $100,000 bail, which she posted three day later. However, she was later re-arrested on April 29 via an arrest warrant because law enforcement officials believed that she was a flight risk. She is currently in custody in the Orange County Jail in Santa Ana on a four million dollar bail.
She has entered a not guilty plea to all charges and allegations in Orange County Superior Court.
Gross Vehicular Manslaughter While Intoxicated
California Penal Code section 191.5(a) codifies gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated. This means that a driver operates a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or both, and operates the motor vehicle in a “grossly negligent” manner which results in the death of another person.
A “grossly negligent act” for the purposes of this charge, must be an a misdemeanor, an infraction, or an otherwise lawful act that could cause death.
Therefore, the officers with the Huntington Police Department originally arrested Bani Duarte on suspicion of gross vehicular manslaughter because they suspected three things had occurred. First, that she was driving while under the influence of alcohol because her blood-alcohol content was 0.28 percent. Second, she operated the vehicle in a grossly negligent manner when she was speeding at seventy nine miles per hour and then failed to stop, rear-ending the Toyota. Third, speeding at that rate, and slamming into the Toyota stopped at the intersection, actually resulted in the death of three teenagers.
This charge is a felony in California, and Bani Duarte would have been facing four, six, or ten years in state prison.
Although, Huntington Beach Police officers referred the case to the Orange County District Attorney’s office for prosecution of driving under the influence and gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, the district attorney’s office exercised its discretion and charged Bani Duarte with three counts of murder, plus driving under the influence.
California prosecutors have discretion to file murder charges instead of gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, in the most serious of cases. This is usually the case when prosecutors believe that the defendant acted with malice. That is, when a person knowing that her conduct endangers the life of another, still acts deliberately with conscious disregard for life. Basically, Orange County prosecutors have decided that Bani Duarte acted with an awareness that her action had a higher degree of risk and she disregarded that risk which led to someone’s death.
California Penal Code section 187(a) defines murder as “the unlawful killing of a human being … with malice aforethought.” In California, the California Supreme Court specifically authorized the charging of a particular type of murder known as “DUI Murder”. In Orange County Superior Court, this is known as a “Watson Murder” because of the California Supreme Court case of People v. Robert Lee Watson. The Court in that case held that a California defendant who was driving while intoxicated and causes a motor vehicle accident that kills another person, can be charged and convicted of murder.
In the case against Bani Duarte, the Orange County prosecutor’s will have to prove that she operated her motor vehicle with “malice aforethought”. Under California Penal Code section 188, malice may be established as “implied malice”. Implied malice can be established by showing that a defendant’s act has a high probability that it will result in death, and that the defendant did that act with a disregard for human life.
Therefore, the Orange County prosecutors will have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Bani Duarte consumed alcohol to a point of intoxication while knowing that she would have to drive later and thereby operate a motor vehicle in a dangerous manner. They will argue that she had an awareness of the great risk of harm she was creating because she had previously been arrested for driving under the influence. However, more importantly, she stopped her car and got out after hitting a curb the night of the fatal accident. She was offered a ride home by the witness and she declined. It is this that the prosecution may focus on to show that Bani Duarte acted with a conscious disregard for human life.
Awareness of the Risk of Driving Under the Influence
To many people, it may seem obvious that driving a motor vehicle while intoxicated has a risk of death associated with it. This is because the driver could get into a fatal car accident. In California, a prosecutor must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant in a DUI Murder case knew the risks of death associated with driving under the influence.
In the case of Bani Duarte, the Orange County prosecutor’s will likely use the 2016 suspension of her license, and later 2017 reinstatement, to prove her knowledge. This is because in California when you are arrested for driving under the influence, the Department of Motor Vehicles will suspend your license. Your license is only reinstated when you have completed “California DUI school.” Since Bani Duarte’s license was reinstated in 2017, she must have completed the school.
In California DUI school, participants are warned about the risks of driving while intoxicated, such as death in a fatal crash. Orange County prosecutor’s will likely introduce her driving record and course records to prove that she knew the risks of driving while intoxicated, thereby establishing “implied malice” for murder.
If convicted on even one count of murder, she is facing fifteen years to life in California state prison and a strike.
Sentencing Enhancements for Great Bodily Injury in DUI Murder
California Penal Code section 12022.7(a) allows the prosecution to enhance the sentencing in a DUI Murder case where the defendant has inflicted great bodily injury on any surviving victim in the course of the fatal accident. Under section (f), great bodily injury is defined as “a significant or substantial physical injury”.
The Orange County District Attorney’s office has alleged a sentence enhancement against Bani Duarte under this code section for the injury to the fourth victim, Alexis Vargas.
With the three counts of murder (one for each life taken), driving under the influence causing injury, and the sentence enhancement for great bodily injury, she is facing fifty one years to life in California state prison.
Possible Defenses in DUI Murder
Any criminal case that involved driving under the influence is immediately defended by attacking the procedures of the arresting officers. Under California law there are very specific guidelines and procedures that the officers must follow to establish successfully that a defendant was driving under the influence. This includes attacking the credibility of the chemical blood, breath or urine test which allegedly established the defendant’s blood-alcohol level.
Another defense would be that the defendant was not actually at fault in the motor vehicle accident. It is alleged that Bani Duarte rear-ended the Toyota at a high rate of speed while it was stopped at a red light. However, an Orange County criminal defense attorney may challenge this assertion. Perhaps she was not actually speeding, or the light at the intersection may not have been red after all.
Most often, a defense in a DUI Murder case will be to fight that the defendant exhibited the requested malice. In the case of Bani Duarte, this will require reviewing all the course material for her California DUI school. Her defense attorney will need to speak with the instructor, review the exams, and maybe speak with other students in that course. If the criminal defense attorney can establish that the school did not go over the fatal risks of driving under the influence then implied malice cannot be established.
The California Supreme Court in People v. Robert Lee Watson, specifically stated that a second degree murder charge of “DUI Murder” in lieu of a lesser charge, is discouraged.