People v. Howard

34 Cal. 4th 1129, 23 Cal. Rptr. 3d 306, 104 P.3d 107 (2005)



Because the second degree felony-murder rule is a court-made rule, it has no statutory definition. It has been described as providing that a homicide that is a direct causal result of the commission of a felony inherently dangerous to human life (other than the felonies enumerated in Cal. Penal Code § 189) constitutes at least second degree murder. The rule eliminates the need for proof of malice in connection with a charge of murder. It is not an evidentiary presumption but a substantive rule of law, which is based on the theory that when society has declared certain inherently dangerous conduct to be felonious, a defendant should not be allowed to excuse himself by saying he was unaware of the danger to life because, by declaring the conduct to be felonious, society has warned him of the risk involved. Because the second degree felony-murder rule is a judge-made doctrine without any express basis in the California Penal Code, its constitutionality has been questioned. Legal scholars have criticized the rule for incorporating an artificial concept of strict criminal liability that erodes the relationship between criminal liability and moral culpability. Therefore, the rule deserves no extension beyond its required application.


While fleeing from a police officer at high speed, defendant ran a red light, causing a fatal collision. During the chase, defendant also ran stop signs and drove on the wrong side of the road. The trial court instructed the jury to find defendant guilty of murder if it found that the death occurred during defendant's commission of a violation of Cal. Veh. Code § 2800.2, which prohibited driving in willful or wanton disregard for the safety of persons or property while fleeing from a pursuing police officer. The defendant was convicted of murder. The case was appealed.


Was it proper to convict the defendant of murder?




The court, in reversing, held that the second degree felony-murder rule, which applied to felonies that were inherently dangerous to life, did not apply to violations of § 2800.2 because it was possible to commit such violations without endangering others' lives. Section 2800.2(b) broadly defined "willful or wanton disregard for the safety of persons or property," as used in § 2800.2(a), to include any flight from an officer during which a driver committed three traffic violations that were assigned a point count under Cal. Veh. Code § 12810, or which resulted in damage to property. Some traffic violations with a point count could be committed without endangering human life.

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