Bill Seeks to Limit Liability for Felony Murder. What’s Next?

By Shaun Rundle, Deputy Director.

Just when we think criminal justice reforms in California cannot get any worse, a bill exists to further limit people’s liability for criminal activity. CPOA joins many of our law enforcement partners in opposition to SB 1437 (Skinner-D). The bill states that malice shall not be imputed to a person based solely on his or her participation in a murder, but only if they personally committed the homicide. Senator Skinner feels that the application of California’s felony murder statute applies even when death was accidental, unintentional or unforeseen during the course of events.

SB 1437 takes a different (and worse) approach to addressing felony murder in California. Another bill by Assembly member Jim Cooper (D-Elk Grove) was introduced on the same topic. His bill, AB 3104, would have provided sentencing categories for murder participants based upon their role in specified felonies. CPOA supported AB 3104, but unfortunately that bill stalled in the Assembly.

Senator Skinner’s SB 1437 specifies that a participant in certain felonies is liable for first degree murder only if one of the following is proven:

  • The person was the actual killer
  • The person was not the actual killer, but, with intent, aided, abetted, counseled, commanded, induced, solicited, requested or assisted the actual killer in the commission of murder
  • The person was a major participant in the underlying felony and acted with reckless indifference to human life

One of the many problems with this approach is that it basically depletes a deterrent to participating in a murder, even if you know you’re not going to be the one dealing the final blow. SB 1437 also unwisely provides no exceptions for trial transcripts to be used in resentencing hearings, thereby relying on testimony of crime victims and witnesses.

In a state that appears to favor offenders over victims, thanks to recent reforms like AB 109 (realignment) in 2011, Prop 47 in 2014, and Props 57 and 64 in 2016 we have to keep asking ourselves when enough is going to be enough. Based upon recent conversations I have had with legislators and their staff in the Capitol, that question seems to continuously linger as law enforcement in California has to continue to respond to these outright ridiculous publics safety proposals. On top of that, the voters in this state are often sold public safety ballot measures under misleading titles and summaries, such as Prop 47’s Safe Neighborhoods and Safe Schools Act. So far, I’d like to know one neighborhood or school that appears to be safer thanks to reducing the convictions and sentences of criminals. I’ll wait.

SB 1437 will be heard in August in the Assembly Appropriations Committee, chaired by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher (D-San Diego). CPOA members are encouraged to express their concern to the committee at 916-319-2081.