felony murder rule

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The felony murder rule is a law in most states and under federal law that allows anyone who is accused of committing a violent felony to be charged with murder if the commission of that felony results in the death of someone. The people involved in the felony may be charged for murder under the rule even if they had no intention of killing someone. For example, if A and B attempt to rob a store and A accidentally killed an employee when breaking through a window, then both A and B could be charged with murder through the felony murder rule, even though B did not kill a person and A did not intend the outcome. 

Violent felonies typically includes burglary, robbery, arson, rape, and kidnapping. However, jurisdictions may expand the rule to other types of crimes; and some states such as Georgia and Missouri may apply the rule to all felonies. Also, the merger doctrine prevents the rule from applying when the felony may constitute the elements of murder. This means that if someone commits acts like assault that could have been murder, the felony murder rule cannot apply because the crime “merges” into the charge. For example, a 2009 California State case, People v. Sarun Chun, 203 P.3d 425 (2009), disallowed the felony murder doctrine because the underlying felony, a drive-by shooting, was assaultive in nature. 

There may be an exception to the felony murder rule depending on the jurisdiction. Some states do not apply the felony murder rule to co-felons if they did not intend or know that someone was likely to be killed. Some states also have an exception to the felony murder rule if the person who dies is someone else involved in the felony. For example, if A and B rob a store and the store owner killed A, this exception would prevent the application of the felony murder rule to B because A was a co-felon.

States differ on what class of murder a felony murder falls under and what punishments follow. In some states, a person can even face the death penalty for felony murder. However, the Supreme Court has interpreted the Eighth Amendment, in the case Enmund v. Florida, 458 U.S. 782 (1982), to prevent the death penalty for felony murder for co-conspirators who did not intend for anyone to be killed during the commissions of the felony. The death penalty can still apply, according to the Supreme Court in Tison v. Arizona, 481 U.S. 137 (1987), where the co-conspirator’s actions showed a reckless indifference to human life and played a “major” part in the felony. 

[Last updated in December of 2022 by the Wex Definitions Team]