California Legislators Consider Softening “Felony Murder” Doctrine Which Allows Murder Convictions Even if You Did Not Kill Anyone Yourself
In California, like in many states, you can be convicted of murder if you are involved in a crime in which someone else actually killed the person, even if you never agreed to kill anyone and you did not want anyone to die. The California State Senate recently passed a bill intended to limit accomplice liability in these circumstances. Find out below about the applicable law and the potential change to this doctrine in California, otherwise known as the felony murder law, and contact an experienced Ventura criminal law attorney with additional questions.
California’s felony murder rule
Under California’s “felony murder” rule, a defendant can be found guilty of murder if someone is killed during the commission of one of a list of “dangerous” felonies, even if someone else actually killed the person, and even if it was a complete accident. This is true even if murder was not a part of the original criminal plan. For example, perpetrators of arson are guilty of murder even if they believed the building they were burning down was empty, and getaway drivers for an armed robbery can be convicted of murder if someone else in the group kills someone during the robbery attempt.
The felony murder doctrine is an exception to the normal rule for murder under California law, which requires the defendant to have maliciously intended to kill someone for a murder conviction to stick. Killing someone without malice, for example, while driving recklessly, normally leads to charges of involuntary manslaughter.
The proposed changes to the felony murder rule in California
The felony murder rule is generally meant to deter people from committing particularly dangerous felonies. Legal scholars have debated the fairness of the rule, which essentially turns murder convictions into a game of roulette for perpetrators of crimes who did not plan for anyone to die.
Recognizing the problems with the rule, the California Senate recently approved SB-1437, which would limit “murder” to defendants who either actually killed someone, aided the crime with the intent to kill someone, or acted as a “major participant” with “reckless indifference to human life.” The changed language could potentially exonerate, for example, getaway drivers who never intended that anyone be killed.
The bill has been approved by the California State Assembly’s Public Safety Committee and now needs to be passed by the State Assembly to be made into law. Several other states, including Hawaii, Kentucky, Massachusetts and Michigan, have already abolished the felony murder rule.