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SENATE BILL 1437 ELIMINATES THE FELONY MURDER RULE IN CALIFORNIA

The Felony Murder Rule is a rule that attributes liability to an accomplice for a murder even if the accomplice was not the actual killer. In California, an accomplice (also referred to as an aider and abettor) to a crime can be charged, convicted, and sentenced for first- or second- degree murder just by the simple fact that he or she participated in a crime where a murder occurred. In fact, for some serious crimes such as burglary, robbery, or rape, an accomplice to the crime could even be sentenced to death even though he or she did not commit the actual killing.

For example, Jack and Jill scheme to steal a pail of very high value liquid from a woman who lives up on a hill. Jack is armed; he is the one who will take the pail by force or fear (robbery). Jill’s role is to coax the woman out of her house so the robbery can be accomplished. Jack and Jill do not plan to murder anyone; they only want the pail and its contents. Jill lures the woman outside where Jack is waiting. Jack springs from behind some bushes, points the gun at the woman, and demands the pail. As this is happening, Jill spots a neighbor with a shotgun who is witnessing this event. Jill warns Jack and in a sudden panic, he shoots and kills the neighbor. Jack and Jill then run down the hill without the pail of liquid. Much to their surprise, the cops are waiting for them at the bottom of the hill because the neighbor’s wife had called 911. They are both arrested and charged with attempted robbery and murder.

Jill never expected Jack to kill anyone; in fact, he had told her that the gun was not loaded. None of that matters for purposes of the felony murder rule. It is enough that Jill participated in a crime that had the inherent risk of death. It doesn’t matter if the death was intentional, negligent or even accidental.

The felony murder rule originated from English common law. While most English-speaking countries have long since abolished the felony murder rule, 46 U.S. states, including California, still have some form of the rule. However, effective January 1, 2019, the felony murder rule as it currently applies in California will be abolished. Senate Bill 1437, signed into law by Governor Brown, eliminates the presumed accomplice liability for a murder committed by a partner to the crime.

Beginning in 2019, an accomplice cannot be held liable for a murder he or she did not commit during the commission of some other felony unless the accomplice intended for the murder to occur or if the accomplice was a major participant in the underlying felony and he or she acted with “reckless indifference to human life.”

The first condition is fairly easy to understand. For example, three members of a gang decide to terrorize a neighborhood and to shoot anyone who disrespects them.  They approach an individual in the neighborhood pointing their guns at him and threaten to shoot him. The individual yells out a slogan that one of the gang members finds disrespectful and shoots him. Because all three gang members intended to aid this crime and intended to shoot anyone who was disrespectful, all three, not just the shooter, can be charged with murder.

The second condition is much more difficult to define. We will likely wait years until the courts sort out exactly who might be described as a major participant who, as a participant in the underlying felony, acted with reckless disregard for human life. However, the new law is significant in that it eliminates the blanket murder liability for all accomplices.

This new law is retroactive. Someone who was convicted and sentenced as an accomplice for a murder committed by someone else during the commission of a felony may be eligible for resentencing under this law. If you or someone you know might be affected by this new law, it is important to contact an experienced Orange County criminal defense attorney right away. Under the new law, the sentence for an accomplice to a crime where a murder occurred may be significantly shorter. Criminal defense attorney William Weinberg can review the facts of the case and advise as to whether the new law will apply.

Attorney Weinberg will be happy to discuss your options free of charge. Contact him at his Irvine office at (949) 474-8008 or by email at bill@williamweinberg.comfor a complimentary consultation.

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