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A Summary of SB 1437


Murder is one of the most serious crimes a person can commit. From a legal standpoint, murder is when someone kills another human being with forethought. To put it more clearly, to be charged with murder, it must be proven that the offender intended the death of the other person. Felony murder is much different – though can be as serious – as murder.

Though felony murder is an extremely serious crime as well, it isn’t the same charge. Felony murder concerns a death that occurred during the act of a felony crime. Most people agree that such a severe crime deserves appropriate punishment, but many don’t understand that a person can be charged for murder without being directly responsible for another’s death. This sets murder apart from other serious crimes, and the implications can be devastating to families and communities. In some situations, the consequences for just being associated with a killer can be life-altering.

Understanding Felony Murder Charges

Punishments for felony murder cases are often severe, and understandably so. However, there are instances where a person may be charged when they took no part in the act of murdering someone. Under previous California law, a person is charged with first-degree murder if he or she took any part in a crime that resulted in murder, whether the murder was premeditated or not. This means that several people, not just the person who committed the act of murder, would be charged for first-degree murder. Though this situation is technically classified as second-degree murder, it can be reclassified as first-degree murder and the offending party can be sentenced as such if it occurs during a violent crime.

The sentence for first-degree murder in California is 25 years to life in prison. As of January 1, 2019, the protocol changed significantly, resulting in more reasonable sentencing for persons who acted as accomplices or were not involved in the act of murder itself. The law that went into effect is called SB 1437, and it has had implications throughout the California legal system.

What Is SB 1437?

The bill that changed the murder sentencing laws is SB 1437. Before SB 1437 became law, felony murder charges would be leveraged against every member of a group associated with the crime at hand. In the past, if a death occurred during the act of a felony crime, all groups associated with the felony crime would not only be charged for that crime but the murder as well.

Many people felt like the umbrella of felony murder for all accomplices was too hard a sentence requirement. The issue here is that not all murders are premeditated. Often, especially in felony criminal cases, the specific factors of a situation can change the outcome; we often see people who intended to rob a bank but ended up murdering someone in the moment due to fear, defense, or impulsive instinct. While this is still a criminal and punishable offense, there is no proof that the other criminals involved in the robbery had anything to do with the killing. However, in the past, all criminals involved with the robbery would also be charged with murder, not just the person who acted on instinct. This put many people in jail for crimes that they did not commit, nor did they consent to be a part of them. Their associates acted on a whim, and they were severely punished as a result.

SB 1437 rules that those who acted as unknowing accomplices to murders will not be punished with the same severity as those who committed the murder. However, this only applies to cases in which neither the murderer nor any accomplices had prior intention to kill the victim, nor did they act with indifference toward human life or careless disregard. There are various real-world scenarios of how this law changes consequences for certain individuals involved in felony crimes.

Real World Examples of SB 1437

The implementation of SB 1437 is a bit complex. Examples of how this works could make it clearer. Here are a few examples of how the new law shifts the consequences of felony murder to the offender and the offender alone:

  • If a man and his wife intend to rob a liquor store for the money, the man will go in and collect the money while the wife will occupy the liquor store clerk. While committing the robbery, the man becomes paranoid that the security guard will be able to act as a witness. He then kills the security guard, though the plan was only to take the money and leave.Under previous felony laws, both the man and his wife would be charged with first-degree murder, as they were both participants in the activity that led to the security guard’s death. Under SB 1437, only the man would be charged with murder as he was the one who killed the security guard. His wife would be charged with robbery, as that’s what she had intended to do; she had not known that her husband would murder the security guard.
  • Another example would be in cases of kidnapping. Let’s say two men conspire to kidnap a child and leverage the child for ransom. They wait until the child is alone in his yard before luring him into their van. The plan goes relatively according to plan, but while driving away, the first man notices a neighbor watching them and speaking on her phone. He panics, assuming that she has seen what they’ve done and is talking to the police. To ensure that there were no witnesses to their kidnapping endeavor, Man 1 shoots the woman from the car window and speeds off. Man 2 begins to panic because this was not part of their plan, nor did he consent to be part of a criminal enterprise where someone would be hurt or killed.The police catch up with them a few blocks later, and the two are arrested. Before SB 1437, both men would be charged with both kidnapping and first-degree murder, even though Man 1 acted on impulse at the moment. With SB 1437 in place, Man 1 would be charged with kidnapping and murder, while Man 2 would be charged only with the kidnapping he had intended to commit, as long as he can prove that the murder was not part of their plan.
  • This law has serious implications in cases of rape as well. Let’s say that two men plan to rape a woman they meet at a bar. They drug her drink and bring her to the bar’s alleyway. However, while they are committing the felony act of rape, a passerby walks through and tries to stop them. Man 2 begins to punch the man and then proceeds to kick him repeatedly after he’s hit the ground. The blows render the good Samaritan unconscious, and the men decide to cut their endeavor short and leave the scene. The passerby soon dies of his injuries.
  • Thanks to alleyway and bar security footage, the two men are apprehended and brought into police custody to be charged. Before SB 1437, both Man 1 and Man 2 would be charged with rape and first-degree murder, as the passerby died of injuries that Man 2 inflicted upon him. The court does not concede that the victim did not die during the attack; he died later as a direct result of the injuries inflicted by Man 2. After SB 1437, Man 1 would be charged with rape, while Man 2 would be charged with rape and first-degree murder. Because the two didn’t plan for someone to walk by or catch them during their crime, and Man 2 acted singularly in attacking the passerby, Man 1 would not need to be charged with murder on top of his rape sentencing.
  • It’s important to note that this law does not only apply to crimes committed by two people. It may also apply to crimes committed by three or more people when one acts on impulse to kill someone. Let’s say three women plan to steal a nice car. They see a man in a Tesla at a stoplight, so they open his doors and force him out so they can take it. They drive away in the man’s car, but a block later, a shop owner runs out into the street to try and stop them. They stop the car momentarily, but the driver ultimately decides to run over the shop owner so they can leave without witnesses. In court before SB 1437, the driver and the two passengers would be charged with carjacking and first-degree murder for the shop owner’s death.However, after SB 1437, the driver would be charged with carjacking and first-degree murder, while the other two would only be charged with carjacking, as they hadn’t previously planned to kill anyone in the process. This distinction could lead to significantly shorter prison sentences for the two passengers in the car, as they acted only as accomplices.

Proving Eligibility for SB 1437

For SB 1437 to apply, an attorney must be able to prove both the accomplices’ innocence and that the murder had no premeditation. Before a judge can enact sentencing based on SB 1437, there must be no doubt that the murder was spontaneous, and that the accomplice was not directly involved. An attorney must also prove that the offending parties did not act with reckless indifference to human life. In short, they should not have reasonably expected that murder might be a natural result of their planned activity. Conversely, to uphold a first-degree murder sentence for an accomplice, a district attorney must be able to prove that a murder was planned and premeditated, a task that is often difficult to do.

Under CA law, people charged with felony murder must apply, or their lawyer must apply, for it to be considered. This is not a given in the courtroom. To claim innocence under SB 1437, the defendant’s attorney must bring it to the court’s attention and plead the case. This not only requires an intimate knowledge of the criteria surrounding the law but the ability to irrefutably prove that both or all parties were not responsible for the murder aspect of the crime.

Consequences of SB 1437

Natural and Probable Consequences

One area that SB 1437 affects is the natural and probable consequences rule. This concept states that the defendant should have anticipated that murder or death would occur during their chosen actions. With SB 1437, this rule becomes relatively ineffective. To uphold an accomplice’s murder charges in a post-SB-1437 courtroom, a district attorney would have to prove that the defendant did one of the following:

  • Acted with malice
  • Performed the murder
  • Commiserated or shared intent to murder with the killer

If none of these can be proven without the shadow of a doubt, SB-1437 states that the defendant must be charged only for the crime they committed and not the murder in which they were not directly involved. This eliminates the ability to claim that someone should have known that a murder would occur and instead focuses on the intent of the crime.

Reckless Indifference to Human Life

Though it’s sometimes difficult to tell the difference between the natural and probable consequences rule and the reckless indifference to human life clause, the distinction is essential to upholding SB 1437. While the natural and probable consequences rule is generally incompatible with SB 1437 cases, the same is not true for reckless indifference to human life. The latter is essential to the application of SB 1437. Both rules deal with the unintended consequences of chosen actions. However, reckless indifference to human life is applicable when death was not just possible during the activity, but probable. For example, if two people plan to set fire to a home for insurance money, their specific aim was not to kill anyone in the home, reckless indifference to human life applies.

This is because it is not just possible, but likely that they will seriously harm or kill someone through their arson attempt. In this case, an accomplice could be charged with first-degree murder. Even though the murder was not explicitly premeditated, SB 1437 would not apply because the activity in question will likely lead to death.

Applications of SB 1437

This law does not apply in all cases of murder but rather in specific incidents in which accomplices are unduly punished for a crime harsher than the one for which they are responsible. Due to the felony murder rule, unintentional murders that occur during a different felony are moved from second-degree murder to first-degree murder. Whereas unintended or unplanned murders otherwise fall under either second-degree murder or manslaughter court jurisdictions, murders that happen during other felonies are automatically reclassified. This naturally accounts for the risks associated with committing felonies and enacts consequences that reflect both the severity of the planned activities and the tragedy of the murder. SB 1437 protects accomplices from decisions that they did not make while applying to cases in which the felony murder rule would have made their sentence more severe than a traditional unplanned murder.

The felonies included in this rule include:

The felony murder rule also applies to any crime detailed under Sections 206, 286, 288, 288a, and 289. With SB 1437, anyone who acted as an accomplice in any of the above crimes during which a spontaneous murder occurred, the accomplice can only be charged for the felony and should not be charged with first-degree murder.

Exceptions to SB 1437

SB 1437 does not automatically cover every instance in which accomplices to murders are charged with first-degree murder. There are situations in which the accomplice can still be charged with first-degree murder under the felony murder rule. One such situation is if the accomplice helped plan the murder or knew about the murder beforehand. To prove this, a DA would have to prove that the murder was, in fact, premeditated and claim malice aforethought. If so, it’s likely the accomplice will be charged as well.

Another application of malice aforethought occurs when one intends to bring serious harm to someone without killing them. If they do die, the DA may argue malice aforethought. So, for example, two women intend to confront a man who had cheated on them both. The first wants to talk it out, while the other wants to beat him with a baseball bat. Knowing this, they both confront the man. The second woman follows through with her plan to beat the man with a baseball bat, and in the process, inflicts severe injuries. The man later dies at the hospital. Both women would be exempt from SB 1437 because even though they did not explicitly intend to kill the man, one of them did intend to inflict significant bodily harm. The other woman knew about this and did nothing.

Gang-Related Effects From SB 1437

SB 1437 will not change how many gang members find themselves in prison for life. The three strikes rule still applies. If a person is convicted of their third serious offense, with at least two of them being violent offenses, they automatically receive life in prison. However, this could change the number of violent offenses on a person’s record. For example, if a gang member is charged with a drug-related offense, and then years later is an accomplice in a spontaneous felony murder, in the past that member would be imprisoned for life because their felony and the murder would count as their second and third strikes, respectively.

With SB 1437 in place, a gang accomplice would not be charged for murder, only for the felony at hand. In this way, there may be a chance to avoid life imprisonment and seek reform before a third strike occurs. So, while SB 1437 does not change the three strikes rule, nor does it reclassify felony murder situations, it does narrow the felony murder rule’s scope. Rather than charging everyone involved equally, this reform instead only charges those who are truly responsible.

SB 1437 Is Retroactive

A key aspect of SB 1437 is that it can be applied retroactively. This means that it could be applied to crimes that have already been committed. Inmates who believe that they’ve been given incarceration terms that reflect a crime to which they were only accomplices can apply for a reduced sentence. During a re-sentencing case, a judge may grant a lighter sentence to those who meet the following three criteria:

  • The defendant’s murder conviction was created under a “natural and probable causes” criteria.
  • The defendant was charged with either first- or second-degree murder.
  • Had SB 1437 been in place at the time of conviction, the defendant would not have been charged with murder.

If these criteria are met, the defendant’s attorney has more than enough leverage to bring the case to court for resentencing and ask for a lighter sentence for their client under California’s SB 1437 law. If you believe you or a loved one might be entitled to a lesser sentence based on these criteria, it’s crucial to contact our office.

Call an Experienced an Attorney

If you or someone you know is in prison for a murder to which they were not a premeditated accomplice, or if they were charged with a murder that they did not commit alongside another felony act, contact our firm. You or your loved one may be entitled to a lighter sentence. The key to successfully achieving a lighter sentence is the right LA murder defense attorney. The professionals at Stein and Markus are relentless advocates for justice and will work tirelessly to keep you or your loved one from serving for a crime that is not your fault. Contact us today for a consultation. We understand the complex issues surrounding felony murder charges and SB 1437. Let us help you determine your next steps.

The post A Summary of SB 1437 appeared first on Law Office of Stein & Markus | Attorney in Bellflower, CA.

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