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Law School Case Brief

People v. Patterson - 49 Cal. 3d 615, 262 Cal. Rptr. 195, 778 P.2d 549 (1989)

Rule:

The court defines the second degree felony-murder doctrine as follows: A homicide that is a direct causal result of the commission of a felony inherently dangerous to human life other than the six felonies enumerated in Cal. Penal Code §189 constitutes at least second degree murder. In determining whether the felony is inherently dangerous, the court look to the elements of the felony in the abstract, not the particular "facts" of the case.

Facts:

Defendant was charged with murder under the second degree felony-murder doctrine for violating Cal. Health & Safety Code § 11352 when he furnished cocaine to a person who died as a result of ingesting it. The trial court dismissed the murder charge sua sponte under Pen. Code, § 1385, finding that a violation of Health & Saf. Code, § 11352, was not inherently dangerous to human life. On appeal by the People, the Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal of the murder count.

Issue:

Did the second degree felony-murder doctrine apply to a defendant who, in violation of Health and Safety Code 11352, furnished cocaine to a person who died as a result of ingesting it?

Answer:

Yes.

Conclusion:

The Court reversed and remanded the judgment that held as a matter of law that the second-degree felony-murder doctrine did not apply to defendant. The Court held that in determining whether the felony was inherently dangerous, the trial court should have looked to the elements of the felony in the abstract, not the particular facts of the case. According to the Court, the inquiry into inherent dangerousness should have focused on the felony of furnishing cocaine, and not § 11352 as a whole. A felony was inherently dangerous to life when there was a high probability that its commission would result in death. The second-degree felony-murder doctrine acted as a substitute for malice; thus, when a defendant commits a felony inherently dangerous to life, malice need not be shown to convict defendant of murder.

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