California does have a felony murder law. Generally, it provides that a person can be charged with and potentially convicted of murder if they were not the actual killer but played a major role in the underlying offense that resulted in the death of another.
California's definition of felony murder was revised in 2018 by Senate Bill 1437. Before this law went into effect, even if a person was not the actual killer and did not intend to take another's life, if they were involved in a crime that affected such a result, they could be charged with and convicted of murder.
The Reason Behind the Update in California’s Felony Murder Law
Criminal law is concerned with holding people accountable for unlawful acts they commit. The punishments a person could face if they are found guilty of a crime should be proportionate to the level of their culpability. In other words, someone should not be severely punished for a non-serious offense or if their level of responsibility was lesser than another person's.
Senate Bill 1437 was introduced to address these principles as they pertain to the sanctions imposed upon someone charged with murder when their involvement in the offense was minor. California's old felony murder law provided that if a person was involved in a felony and someone died during the commission or attempted commission of that offense but they did not intend to kill the other person or did not know someone lost their life, they could, if convicted, be penalized as if they were the ones who caused the other person's death.
Under the old felony murder law, even though one person had a lower level of culpability than another (the person who actually did the killing), they could both face 25 years to life in prison upon conviction. Allowing this undermined principles of "law and of equity." SB 1437 remedied that by essentially stating that each person should be held accountable for their actions but only to the extent that they were responsible for the offense. A person should not be held liable for murder if they did not carry out the actual act, did not intend for the death to happen, and was unaware that such occurred.
When SB 1437 was enacted in 2018, it amended the language of California Penal Code 189 – the law concerning murder and felony murder.
What Is Felony Murder in California?
The elements of felony murder are enumerated in California Penal Code 189(e). The subdivision provides that a person who participated in a felony in which the death of another resulted can be convicted of murder only under certain circumstances.
The law applies when a person was a major participant in a felony where death occurred and:
- Actually killed the other person,
- Did not kill the other person but intended for death to occur and helped the actual killer carry out the offense,
- Was a major participant in the felony where death resulted and they showed a "reckless indifference to human life," or
- Was not the actual killer but knew or reasonably should have known that the victim was a peace officer performing their duties.
The offenses covered by the felony murder law are those listed in subdivision (a) of California Penal Code 189.
These include, but are not limited to:
If a person is involved in the commission or attempted commission of any of the crimes listed above and another was killed, they face the penalties imposed for first-degree murder – 25 years to life in prison.