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California Continues Criminal Justice Reform With Laws Limiting Felony Murder, Juvenile Prosecution

Book with title criminal law on a table.

Governor Jerry Brown recently signed a number of laws aimed at criminal justice reform. These laws benefit accused juvenile offenders, beyond the reforms we previously covered, as well as those who would otherwise face murder charges under the antiquated felony murder rule. Read for details about the new laws, and contact an experienced Rancho Cucamonga criminal defense lawyer if you have been arrested in San Bernardino or Los Angeles County.

California guts felony murder rule

The felony murder rule is an antiquated feature of the criminal justice system. Under the long-standing rule, a person who aids in the commission of a dangerous felony, such as armed robbery or arson, can be charged with murder if anyone dies during the commission of the crime, even by accident. This is true even if the defendant did not intend for anyone to die, specifically agreed with their accomplice(s) that no one would be killed, or even if they did not know anyone died. It is an exception to the normal rule under California law which requires that the defendant maliciously intended to kill someone in order to be guilty of first degree murder. The classic example is the getaway driver who was waiting in the car when a trigger-happy gunman killed someone, or even where a security guard shoots and kills someone. Under the rule, the getaway driver could be found guilty of first degree murder.

Pursuant to Senate Bill 1437, signed by Governor Brown on September 30, a defendant can only be convicted of felony murder if they either personally killed someone, participated in the crime specifically intending to kill someone, or acted as a “major participant” with “reckless indifference to human life.” While criminals and accomplices will still be punished for their crimes, no longer will mere participants in a broader crime be treated as first-degree murderers for deaths that they had no intention to cause.

The new law applies retroactively, allowing inmates currently serving time based on felony murder charges to apply for sentence reductions.

Minimum age for juvenile offenders

Governor Brown also signed SB 439 on September 30. The bill provides that offenders under the age of 12 are not subject to the jurisdiction of the juvenile court, other than for specific, serious crimes including murder, rape, and other forms of sexual assault. For any other crime, if the offender is under 12 years old, the juvenile cannot be charged for a crime. If the police arrest a juvenile under 12, they must release the child to the custody of their parents, or the county may provide some viable, restricted alternative to criminal prosecution and custody. Alternatives could include, for example, intervention by child protective services.

Transparency in police records

Governor Brown also signed two bills opening up police records. Assembly Bill 748 mandates the release of body camera footage for any use-of-force incident within 45 days, unless releasing it would interfere with an ongoing investigation. Senate Bill 1421 opens records for investigations of use-of-force incidents in which someone suffered serious injury or death, as well as officer shootings and confirmed cases of sexual assault while on duty.

The Law Offices of John D. Lueck is a trusted Rancho Cucamonga criminal defense law firm with more than 42 years of service to clients in San Bernardino and Los Angeles counties. These cases are highly sensitive and require experienced representation to ensure your rights are protected. If you or someone you know has been arrested for a crime, contact Rancho Cucamonga criminal lawyer John D. Lueck at 909-484-1963 for a free initial consultation.

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