The law punishes almost every incident in which one person kills another, whether it's intentional, reckless, or even unintended. Legally speaking, that means murder, manslaughter, and felony murder.
The first two get a lot of press but the last one doesn't, in part because many jurisdictions have gotten rid of felony murder. But not California.
Felony murder was originally a common law idea, but it's since been signed into official law. In the Golden State, it's a form of first-degree murder. But that doesn't explain what felony murder actually is.
When it comes to felony murder, the law is punishing someone for killing a person during the commission of a dangerous felony.
In California, the rule can apply if someone is killed during a rape, carjacking, robbery, burglary, kidnapping, arson, or any incidence of mayhem. It also applies to drive-by shootings when an innocent bystander is shot.
Generally, first degree murder only applies when the defendant kills someone in a way that was both intentional and premeditated.
In a felony murder case, however, the defendant didn't intend to kill anyone; rather, the killing happened while the defendant was engaged in other dangerous and illegal activity. The law transfers the intent and planning necessary for that crime to the killing.
The consequences of that are serious. If someone is killed during the commission of a crime, the criminal can unexpectedly find himself being charged with murder rather than robbery or arson.
It makes sense when you consider the overall purpose of the legal system.
While it may get bogged down in petty lawsuits and sensational crimes, laws are generally designed to keep the public safe. Their goal is to discourage harmful actions.
Homicide is a complicated category of crime, and felony murder is just one part of it. Curious about other crimes and their definitions? Join the conversation online at our FindLaw Answers Forum.
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