Felony Murder Doctrine

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A doctrine in criminal law which enables a court to convict a defendant of murder if they committed a felony which unintentionally resulted in a killing. For example, in People v. Hernandez, a 1993 New York State case, the court applied the felony murder doctrine to two men who unintentionally murdered an undercover office in the gunfight that followed their attempt to ambush and rob the undercover officer, who was a potential purchaser of drugs.

However, courts have placed certain limitations on the felony murder doctrine. The merger doctrine disallows the application of the felony murder doctrine if the underlying felony merged into the murder. For example, a 2009 California State case, People v. Sarun Chun, disallowed the felony murder doctrine because the underlying felony, a drive-by shooting, was assaultive in nature. Another limitation to the felony murder doctrine’s application is the requirement that the underlying felony be inherently dangerous to human life. For example, a 2005 California case, People v. Howard, denied the application of the felony murder doctrine to a defendant whose wanton driving—the underlying felony—resulted in a death because, in the abstract, the state criminal statute prohibiting the defendants’ manner of driving was not inherently dangerous to human life.

[Last updated in November of 2020 by the Wex Definitions Team]