December 18, 2013 By Paul Wallin

The Felony Murder Rule: How a Dangerous Felony Can Turn into Murder Charges – Penal Code Section 189

California law describes murder as the intentional and malicious killing of another person or unborn child (Penal Code Section 187). However, committing certain crimes that result in a killing, even accidentally, can elevate the charges against you to murder. This is what is known as the “felony murder rule.”

Felony murder, unlike other kinds of murder, does not require that you intended to cause death or that your actions were likely to kill someone.

The felony murder rule allows a killing that occurs in the course of a dangerous felony to be charged against you as first degree murder. Additionally, you can be found guilty of murder during the course of the dangerous felony even if you were not the killer.

This rule exists to prevent the underlying felony from occurring in the first place and to deter your use of violence while you are committing the felony by making you more aware of the negative consequences of your actions.

Felony Murder and Negligence

felony murder rule
Committing crimes that result in a killing can elevate the charges to murder in California under the felony murder rule.

In 2013, the California Supreme Court ruled that a burglary, once “completed,” is not subject to the felony murder rule where the defendant was negligent in causing the death of another person (People v. Wilkins (2013) 56 Cal.4th 333).

In 2006, Cole Wilkins stole household appliances from a home construction site in Riverside County. While he was driving and many miles away from the scene of the crime, unsecured items fell from his pickup truck onto the 91 Freeway in Anaheim, causing an off-duty L.A. County sheriff’s deputy to swerve and become involved in a fatal collision.

An Orange County jury convicted Wilkins of first degree murder under the felony murder rule and he was sentenced to 26 years to life in prison.

The California Supreme Court set aside Wilkin’s conviction, reaffirming what is known as the “escape rule” – meaning, a defendant is said to have completed a burglary when he escapes from the scene, is no longer being chased and has unchallenged possession of the property.

In this case, the court ruled that since the crime of burglary had been completed by the time events transpired that lead to the death on the highway Wilkins could not be convicted of murder under the felony murder rule.

California’s Felony Murder Law

California Penal Code Section 189 classifies a homicide as first degree murder when it is a murder committed during the commission of one of the following dangerous felonies:

  • Arson;
  • Rape and other sexual crimes;
  • Carjacking;
  • Robbery;
  • Burglary;
  • Mayhem;
  • Kidnapping;
  • Train wrecking; and
  • Any homicide committed by intentionally firing a gun from a motor vehicle at a person outside of the motor vehicle with the intention to cause death.

All other “inherently dangerous” murders not listed above are of the second degree.

Fact Patterns Where the Felony Murder Rule Could Apply

  • You and an accomplice decide to rob a store. Your accomplice waives a gun over his head to threaten the clerk and in the commotion, the gun accidently goes off. The bullet ricochets off the ceiling, killing the clerk. You both now face prosecution for first degree murder.
  • You decide to burn up your car to collect the insurance. You’ve committed arson. Unfortunately, the fire spreads to the house next door, killing the people inside. You didn’t intend to harm anyone, but you still can be charged under the felony murder rule.
  • To avoid being arrested on a warrant, you carjack an elderly man and attempt to speed away. Traumatized by the experience, the man suffers a fatal heart attack and dies. Now you could be facing a first degree murder charge in addition to carjacking and evading the police.

How the Criminal Defense Attorneys at Wallin & Klarich Can Help

If you or someone you love is facing murder charges based on the felony murder rule, it is critical that you speak to an experienced criminal defense attorney from Wallin & Klarich immediately. Our attorneys have over 40 years of experience successfully defending persons facing murder charges based on the felony murder rule. We can help you with your case.

If any element of the crime cannot be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, we may be able to get the charges against you reduced or dismissed. If your case does go to trial, our knowledgeable team of murder defense attorneys will develop a legal strategy that gives you the best chance to win your case.

With offices in Los Angeles, Sherman Oaks, Torrance, Tustin, San Diego, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura, West Covina and Victorville, trust the skilled attorneys at Wallin & Klarich to be here for you and your family 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. You don’t have to go through this alone.

Call us today at (877) 4-NO-JAIL or (877) 466-5245 for a free phone consultation. We will get through this together.

AUTHOR: Paul Wallin

Paul Wallin is one of the most highly respected attorneys in Southern California. His vast experience, zealous advocacy for his clients and extensive knowledge of many areas of the law make Mr. Wallin a premiere Southern California attorney. Mr. Wallin founded Wallin & Klarich in 1981. As the senior partner of Wallin & Klarich, Mr. Wallin has been successfully representing clients for more than 30 years. Clients come to him for help in matters involving assault and battery, drug crimes, juvenile crimes, theft, manslaughter, sex offenses, murder, violent crimes, misdemeanors and felonies. Mr. Wallin also helps clients with family law matters such as divorce and child custody.

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