Criminal Law, Pages 315–319

People v. Howard

Supreme Court of California, 2005

Facts:

Defendant stole a car and fled from police to avoid being caught violating his probation. Shortly after police gave up the high-speed chase, defendant ran a red light at over 80 miles per hour and collided with the victims' car. The driver of the other car was killed and her husband was seriously injured. At the time of the accident, the defendant was high on meth and the deceased was high on heroin and possibly cocaine. Defendant described himself as a skilled driver because his cousin, a race car driver had taught him to drive "sprint cars" at a race track.

Defendant was arrested and charged with murder, causing serious bodily injury while evading a police officer, and evading a police officer in willful or wanton disregard for the safety of person or property.

Issue:

Is the crime of driving with a willful or wanton disregard for the safety of persons or property while fleeing from a pursuing police officer an inherently dangerous felony for purposes of the second degree felony-murder rule?

Rules:

  • LexisNexis IconWestLaw LogoGoogle Scholar LogoPage 317

    "A homicide that is a direct causal result of the commission of a felony inherently dangerous to human life constitutes at least second degree murder."

  • LexisNexis IconWestLaw LogoGoogle Scholar LogoPage 317

    "In determining whether a felony is inherently dangerous [under the second degree felony-murder rule], the court looks to the elements of the felony in the abstract, 'not the "particular" facts of the case,' i.e., not to the defendant's specific conduct."

Reasoning:

The statute defines "willful or wanton disregard for the safety of person or property" very broadly. It includes any flight from an officer during which the motorist commits three traffic violations with a "point count" or that result in damage to property. This could include a person whose only traffic violations are driving an unregistered vehicle, going slightly over 55 on a highway, and making a right turn without signaling. This would not endanger human life.

There is no evidence that the legislature considered the felony murder rule in enacting or revising this state. In the absence of such evidence, the felony murder rule should only apply to felonies that are inherently dangerous in the abstract, which this is not.

Holding:

Fleeing from a pursuing police officer is not an inherently dangerous felony.

Covenant Eyes – All the tools you need to build strong accountability.