In introduction, this rule is stated simply. A killing that occurs in the act of committing a different felony can still constitute a murder (i.e. felony + a killing = murder).
People v. Fuller
86 Cal. App. 3d 618 (1978).
Fuller is the defendant, challenged the felony-murder rule, won and the state appealed. He was charged of first degree murder under this rule stated under Penal Code section 189.
Should the felony-murder rule apply?
All murder… which is committed in the perpetration of, or attempt to perpetrate, arson, rape, robbery, burglary, mayhem, or lewd acts with a minor, is murder of the first degree….”
Guilty of murder in the first degree.
Defendants were caught in the act of stealing spare tires from locked cars. They attempted to flee. In the process of fleeing, they ran a red light, hit a passing car and killed the driver. They were arrested at the scene.
The court says that because they were caught in the act of the burglary, they are guilty of a felony-murder. However, they don’t really like this rule. Had all things started over, they would not have found this a first degree murder because the death resulted accidentally as a result of a non-violent burglary. Under this rule, there could be times when a person shoplifts without a weapon, the store owner chases after them, trips, and dies from their injuries. The shoplifter in that case would be convicted of a murder. Here, the court says that this is not morally justified.
Because of precedent, this rule still exists, according to this court. They would at least refine it to include violent felonies.
There are three big criticism for this rule:
- Deterrence is a flawed reasoning because how can you deter something that is unintentional?
- Transferred intent is too broad and unjustly expands murder charges
- Under the retributive theory, strict liability is a “primitive rationale” not considering moral attitudes (mens rea).
On the other hand, there are defenses:
- Actus reus (retributive theory) – Different grades for the same surrounding circumstances (DWI is worse than DWI resulting in a death)
- Reaffirming sanctity of life – Societal outrage requires condemnation
- Deterrence – Is more complex than critics realize.
- Clear consequences – Easier to define because we don’t consider mental states
- Allocation of resources – Less expensive because it’s more simple
- Minimize perjury – Removes us looking subjectively at intent.
Here the defendant was charged with first degree murder. This matters because the rules for first and second degree murder is different.
The felonies in the crime listed is strict liability, therefore, the prosecution said that malice of murder can be implied in the act of committed a felony.
There are two problems here 1) It’s irrational and 2) It destroys the symmetry of the law.
So, why didn’t they charge depraved heart? This presents another issue because quite often you can obtain a conviction through means other than a felony-murder. So, this is a duplicative rule.
To list another issue, what if the car doors were unlocked when the tires were stolen? Since it wasn’t a burglary in that instance, they would not be guilty of a first-degree murder under felony-murder rules. So, a difference between the doors being unlocked or unlocked could be all the difference between being charged with first-degree murder or not being charged with that at all. In other words, there is a disparity for the same moral culpability.
The “Inherently Dangerous Felony” Limitation
People v. Howard
34 Cal. 4th 1129 (2005).
charged with murder and evading a police officer in willful or wanton disregard for the safety of persons or property. Convicted on both counts. Appellate court affirmed and now there is this appeal.
Was driving in this way an inherently dangerous act according to this law?
“Second degree felony-murder rule, conviction can occur without showing malice if the killing occurred during the commission of an inherently dangerous felony.”
“A homicide that is a direct causal result of the commission of a felony inherently dangerous to human life… constitutes at least second degree murder.”
No, in the abstract, this is not an inherently dangerous felony and thus is not subject to the second degree murder rule. Reversed.
Defendants had stolen a vehicle earlier that day. Officers noticed the missing license plate and pulled them over. When the officers exited their vehicle, the defendants fled resulting in a long high speed case into the night. At one point, the defendant had their headlights off, ran a red light and struck a car. They were arrested with second degree murder and evading a peace officer.
Here, the court says that it may be ripe to reconsider having the rule at all. However, the lawyers did not raise the issue so the court passed on it. Instead, they say that the rule stands but this is not an inherently dangerous activity, in the abstract. In other words, they removed the facts of the case from the situation and compared the words of the text on their face. They inferred that this was not a felony sufficient to include the felony-murder rule.
One dissent disagreed saying that this was an inherently dangerous activity but there should not be the felony-murder rule so there would be conviction of murder (no charge with malice).
Another dissent disagreed saying that this was an inherently dangerous activity. However, they said that this falls under the felony-murder rule so they should be found guilty.
Lots of conflict about this rule. Also, as a lawyer, if you want something to be changed, you need to bring up all the arguments at your disposal. Here, the courts were ready to say there was no second-degree murder-felony rule. However, the lawyers didn’t make the argument. Later, when another attorney did to future court (new generation), the court said that the murder-felony rule would stay.
Second-degree felony murders only apply to offenses inherently dangerous to life.
When is a crime inherently dangerous and when is it not? Whether the felony cannot be committed without creating a substantial risk that someone will be killed. This is to be evaluated according to the inherent facts of the case.
The reason why this wasn’t inherently dangerous is because the legislature had added a new section to the statute that includes instances where it would not be dangerous.
We have this limitation to say that if the activity is inherently dangerous there is no need to prove mens rea.
The “Independent Felony” (or Merger) Limitation
People v. Smith
35 Ca. 3d 798 (1984).
Smith is the defendant charged with second degree felony-murder for child abuse resulting in the death of a child.
Can a felony-murder be sustained when the felony (abuse of a child resulting in death) merges with homicide?
The felony-murder rule does not apply “where the purpose of the conduct was the very assault which resulted in death.”
Purpose of the conduct was assault, resulting in death. This is not felony-murder.
Child was two years old when she refused to sit on the couch instead of the floor to eat a snack. Parents went on to “discipline” the child resulting in respiratory arrest ending in her life. The defendants were charged with second-degree murder and felony child abuse.
The felony-murder rule here does not apply. Why? The purpose of felony-murder is to deter people from killing while they are committing a felony. However, when the felony arrises from assault, there is no deterrence, because that is what the defendant is seeking.
Here, the assault resulted in death. Thus, the felony merged with the homicide because that was the intention of the felony. The felony here specifically states that a person is guilty of a third-degree felony if they assault a child resulting in their life. Thus, the courts decide to follow the sentencing procedures of the felony, instead of a homicide.
When the purpose of the felony-murder is not met, the court is going to be quite restrictive in it’s application. Here, the purpose was not met (keeping people killing during an assault). Therefore, the court is not going to apply a felony-murder.
Here, the purpose of the rule is extremely important to understand. The purpose is to deter. Thus, the scope of the felony-murder rule is going to limited so that anything that does not meet this purpose will not be applied to this rule.
Using one of the cases the court cites, Ireland, the court said that a felony that is an integral part of the homicide cannot be included in a felony-murder.
In other words, when you commit a felony assault, you intention is to hurt someone, thus the rule does not apply. However, if you commit a theft, your intent is to steal and not kill. Therefore, if someone dies, the acts are independent and the rule can apply.
“When a person willfully inflicts unjustifiable physical pain on a child under these circumstances, it is difficult to see how the assailant would be further deterred from killing negligently or accidentally in the course of that felony by application of the felony-murder rule.”
Any felony + death = felony murder
In other words, the felony becomes the “malice” for the murder.
Murder can be found if recklessness and indifference is presumed if a person is engaged in “robbery, rape or deviate sexual intercourse by force or threat of force, arson, burglary, kidnapping or felonious escape.”
Here, the murder-felony rule is only a way to show extreme indifference. The extreme indifference, not the crime is what is necessary to show the murder and those felonies may show that mens rea.
The content contained in this article may contain inaccuracies and is not intended to reflect the opinions, views, beliefs, or practices of any academic professor or publication. Instead, this content is a reflection on the author’s understanding of the law and legal practices.