Felony-Murder Rule in California
The California felony-murder rule attaches criminal liability to anyone who kills another human being during the commission of an inherently dangerous felony. The rule was established with the goal of holding people who engage in dangerous behavior accountable for harm to others. Because of this rule, the government can allege criminal liability for the death of another even if the accused did not intend for anyone to die during the commission of certain conduct.
The purpose of the felony murder rule is to deter people from engaging in dangerous behavior that may lead to loss of life. When the felony murder rule is applied, the court does not distinguish between intentional, accidental, or negligent homicides. If a person dies during the commission of a felony, the felony murder rule applies and the person engaged in committing the felony can be charged with murder.
For the felony murder rule to apply, prosecutors do not need to prove that the killing was in furtherance of the crime being perpetrated at the time. As long as the death can be connected to the felony offense, the requirements of felony murder are satisfied. Even deaths that were unforeseeable at the time may trigger the felony murder rule.
In California, a person criminally could be liable for first-degree murder if a death occurs during certain types of felonies. These are typically more serious felonies and include robbery, kidnapping, rape, arson, and a few other less common crimes. If a death results during the commission of one of these felonies, the felony murder rule applies, regardless if the killing was intentional or not. The accused could be charged with first-degree murder.
Second-degree murder charges in felony murder rule cases can be brought if a death occurred during a less serious crime that is still inherently dangerous to human life. In other words, the felony murder rule can still be applied if someone dies during a felony that by its nature heightened the risk to human life.
To determine if a felony is inherently dangerous, the courts look at the legal definition of the crime, not the facts of the particular case. However, when the alleged felony can be violated in a number of ways, the court will look at the specific facts associated with the crime the defendant is accused of committing.
First Degree Murder in California
First-degree murder is defined as intentional, premeditated killing. This means that the individual considered his or her actions and their consequences and still decided to take action to take another person’s life. This doesn’t mean that a person has to have written out a plan and thought about killing his victim for a long period of time. A purposeful decision to kill another person can be made relatively quickly. Other ways in which the killing of another person can be considered murder in the first degree include killing another person through:
- Weapons of mass destruction
- Lying in wait
Penalties for first-degree murder may include twenty-five years to life in prison. If the murder was a hate crime, this aggravating factor leads to a sentence of life in prison without parole. First-degree murder is a serious crime and requires the legal assistance of an experienced California defense lawyer.
Second Degree Murder in California
Second-degree murder is purposeful killing without planning ahead or occurs due to reckless behavior. This is different from first-degree murder as it does not require that the individual was intending to kill the victim before the incident occurred. The most common forms of second-degree murder occur as a result of:
- Impulsive behavior without premeditation
- Actions only intended to cause great harm, not death
- Reckless behavior executed without concern for human life
Since second-degree murder is a sort of catch-all for all murders that are not considered first-degree, the potential penalties vary widely which is why having a California defense attorney by your side is the best thing you can do for your situation. Generally, a conviction of second-degree murder results in a sentence of 15 years to life. Some aggravating factors that lead to longer sentences include:
- Previous murder convictions
- Shooting a firearm out of a moving vehicle with the intent to cause injury
- If the victim is a peace officer
California First Degree vs. Second Degree Murder Charges
Specific categorization of crimes allows the Court to give detailed sentences that match the severity of the crime. In California, felony crimes have varying degrees. For example, if there was only one degree of murder, then anyone who killed another person would probably spend the rest of his or her life in jail.
There would be no room to consider the exact details of the crime such as it occurring in the heat of an argument or as another consequence of an action not intended to actually kill the person. The severity of punishments is all circumstantial. If you have been charged with a first-degree or second-degree crime, contact a California criminal defense lawyer immediately for legal assistance.
The court takes several aspects of a crime into consideration when determining the classification of the transgression. One important consideration is aggravating or mitigating circumstances. Mitigating circumstances are elements of the crime that do not necessarily excuse the crime but that are considered in order to fairly judge the severity, and degree, of a crime. Crimes that are committed in the “heat of passion” are an example of the consideration of mitigating circumstances. Aggravating circumstances are elements of the crime that actually increase its severity – such as killing someone based on their sexual orientation.
Often, the first degree of a crime has a very detailed description, and crimes that are of the same nature but do not fit the requirements for the first degree are considered second-degree. Crimes that are considered to be of the first degree are the most severe. These crimes typically involve planning, intending, or involving other people. First-degree crimes are almost always felonies. Second-degree crimes vary – some are felonies and some are wobblers, which means they can be either felonies or misdemeanors depending on the court’s discretion. If you have been charged with a second-degree crime, call a skilled California criminal lawyer immediately who can help mitigate the punishment.
The differences in degrees of murder and burglary are outlined below to show how these degrees can be defined in different crimes. Please keep in mind these are just general guidelines but are never intended to be legal advice. Always consult with an experienced and licensed California criminal justice lawyer as it pertains to your case.