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Felony murder rule

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Title: Felony murder rule  
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Felony murder rule

The rule of felony murder is a legal doctrine in some common law jurisdictions that broadens the crime of murder in two ways. First, when an offender kills (regardless of accidentally or without specific intent to kill) in the commission of a dangerous or enumerated crime (called a felony in some jurisdictions), he/she is guilty of murder. Second, it makes any participant in such an offence criminally liable for any deaths that occur during or in furtherance of that offence. In short, deaths that occur in the commission of a dangerous offence or enumerated offence (enumerated = stated in statute, e.g. rape, etc.) is murder.

While there is debate about the original scope of the rule, modern interpretations typically require that the offence be an inherently dangerous one, or one committed in an obviously dangerous manner. For this reason, the felony murder rule is often justified by its supporters as a means of deterring dangerous felonies.

According to some commentators, the common law rule dates to the twelfth century and took its modern form in the eighteenth century. Critics of the rule argue that the rule is unjust because it requires no intent to kill.[1] In favor of the rule, it can be argued that the rule affirms the principle of the sanctity of human life by imposing harsher penalties for crimes that destroy human life.[1]

The rule has been abolished in England and Wales[2] and in Northern Ireland.[3] In Canada, it has been held to be unconstitutional, as breaching the principles of fundamental justice.[4][5] In some jurisdictions (such as Victoria, Australia), the common law felony murder (called constructive murder) rule has been abolished, but has been replaced by a similar statutory provision in the Crimes Act 1958.[6] Similarly, in NSW, common law has been overridden and the question needs only be dealt with through statutory construction and application.[7]


  • Origin 1
  • Description 2
  • By country 3
    • Canada 3.1
    • Ireland 3.2
    • United Kingdom 3.3
    • Scotland 3.4
    • United States 3.5
  • See also 4
  • References 5
  • Further reading 6
  • External links 7


The concept of felony murder originates in the rule of transferred intent, which is older than the limit of legal memory. In its original form, the malicious intent inherent in the commission of any crime, however trivial, was considered to apply to any consequences of that crime, however unintended.

Some commentators regard this as a legal fiction whereby the law pretends that the person who intended one wrongful act, also intends all the consequences of that act, however unforeseen. Others regard it as an example of strict liability, whereby a person who chooses to commit a crime is considered absolutely responsible for all the possible consequences of that action. Lord Mustill regards the historical rule as a convergence of these views.[8]

The idea of the felony murder rule arose in 1716, with William Hawkins' Treatise of Pleas of the Crown, during his work on English criminal law. Hawkins reasoned that malice was implicit in a crime that, “necessarily tends to raise Tumults and Quarrels, and consequently cannot but be attended with the danger of personal hurt.”, thus, "this rule should extend to killings in the course of felonies à fortiori.".[9]


In reality, situations are not as simple as the above summary suggests. Not all felonies will apply in most jurisdictions. To "qualify" for felony murder, the underlying offence must present a foreseeable danger to life, and the link between the offence and the death must not be too remote. If the receiver of a merger doctrine excludes felonies that are presupposed by a murder charge. For example, nearly all murders involve some type of assault, but so do many cases of manslaughter. To count any death that occurred during the course of an assault as felony murder would obliterate a distinction carefully set by the legislature; however, merger may not apply when an assault against one person results in the death of another.[10]

To counter the common law style interpretations of what does and does not merge with murder (and thus what does not and does qualify for felony murder), many jurisdictions in the United States explicitly list what offenses qualify. The American Law Institute's Model Penal Code lists robbery, rape or forcible deviant sexual intercourse, arson, burglary, and felonious escape. Federal law specifies additional crimes, including terrorism, kidnapping, and carjacking.

There are two schools of thought concerning whose actions can cause the defendant to be guilty of felony murder. Jurisdictions that hold to the agency theory admit only deaths caused by the agents of the crime. Jurisdictions that use the proximate cause theory include any death, even if caused by a bystander or the police, provided that it meets one of several proximate cause tests to determine if the chain of events between the offence and the death was short enough to have legally caused the death.[11]

Felony murder is typically the same grade of murder as premeditated murder and carries the same sentence as is used for premeditated murder in the jurisdiction in question.

By country


As Canadian criminal law aims to maintain proportionality between the stigma and punishment attached to a conviction and the moral blameworthiness of an offender, in R v. Martineau the Supreme Court of Canada held that it is a principle of fundamental justice under sections 7 and 11(d) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms that a conviction for murder requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt of a subjective foresight of death. In so doing, the court declared sections 230 and 229(a)(i) and (ii) of the Criminal Code to be unconstitutional.[12]

Section 230 provided that a conviction for murder would lie for any killing that was "objectively foreseeable as a result of the abominable nature of the predicate crimes...inter alia...coupled with intentional infliction of bodily harm".[12] This largely equated with a Canadian form of felony murder, though it is technically closer to constructive murder in other jurisdictions.[13]

Nevertheless, s. 229(c), which provides for a form of constructive murder in situations where "an accused for an unlawful object did anything knowing that it was likely [on an objective standard] to cause someone's death" is still operative, as confirmed in a 1999 appellate court decision.[12]


The rule was abolished in the Republic of Ireland by section 4 of the Criminal Justice Act 1964 which codified the mens rea for murder as intention to kill or seriously injure another person.

United Kingdom

England and Wales, Northern Ireland - The rule was abolished in England and Wales by section 1 of the Homicide Act 1957, and in Northern Ireland by section 8 of the Criminal Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 1966; but its effect is preserved by the application of the Common Law principle of "Joint Enterprise". In England and Wales, the definition of murder requires only an intent to cause grievous bodily harm to the victim, rather than specific intent to kill; the effect is the same as that of the felony murder rule applied to crimes of personal violence, though not to all felonies.


There is no equivalent to the felony murder rule in Scots Law, which has also never had a specific concept of felonies in the previous style of English Law. However, the Scots equivalent of "Joint Enterprise" known as "Art and Part" also has a similar effect.

United States

As of August 2008, 46 states in the United States have a felony murder rule,[14] under which felony murder is generally first-degree murder. In 24 of those states, it is a capital offense.[14] When the government seeks to impose the death penalty on someone convicted of felony murder, the Eighth Amendment has been interpreted so as to impose additional limitations on the state power. The death penalty may not be imposed if the defendant is merely a minor participant and did not actually kill or intend to kill. However, the death penalty may be imposed if the defendant is a major participant in the underlying felony and "exhibits extreme indifference to human life".

The Model Penal Code does not include the felony murder rule, but allows the commission of a felony to raise a presumption of extreme indifference to the value of human life.[15][16] Thus, the felony murder rule is effectively used as a rule of evidence.

Most states recognize the merger doctrine, which holds that a criminal assault cannot serve as the predicate felony for the felony murder rule.[17]

By individual jurisdiction

See also


  1. ^ a b See Crump, Reconsidering the Felony Murder Rule in Light of Modern Criticisms: Doesn't the Conclusion Depend Upon the Particular Rule at Issue?, 32 Harv. J.L. & Pub. Pol'y 1155
  2. ^ The Homicide Act 1957 (5 & 6 Eliz.2 c.11), section 1
  3. ^ The Criminal Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 1966 (c.20) (N.I.), section 8 SLD (the Homicide Act 1957 did not extend to Northern Ireland, except in relation to courts-martial by section 17(3) of that Act)
  4. ^ R v Vaillancourt, [1987] 2 SCR 636.
  5. ^ R v Martineau, [1990] 2 SCR 633.
  6. ^ Crimes Act 1958 s.3A
  7. ^ "Ryan v R [2001] HCA 21". AustLII. Retrieved 2015. 
  8. ^ Lord Mustill's exposition to the House of Lords, 1994
  9. ^ GUYORA BINDER, Boston University Law Review- MAKING THE BEST OF FELONY MURDER; INDEPENDENT FELONY REQUIREMENTS, p.525- Retrieved 2013-09-02
  10. ^ See State v. Huynh
  11. ^ Agency Theory vs. the Proximate Cause Theory- Southern Illinois University Law Journal (through Nexis); Retrieved 2013-09-02
  12. ^ a b c Edited case version in Stuart, Don; et al. (2009). ...Criminal Law. p.443-p.455. 
  13. ^ See dissent by L'Heureux-Dubé, Edited case, version in Stuart, Don; et al. (2009). ...Criminal Law. p.443-p.455. 
  14. ^ a b Gramlich, John (August 13, 2008). "Should murder accomplices face execution?". Stateline. Retrieved April 25, 2011. 
  15. ^ Bonnie, R.J. et al. Criminal Law, Second Edition. Foundation Press, New York, NY: 2004, p. 860
  16. ^ American Law Institute Model Penal Code, § 210.2(1)(b) (Official Draft, 1962)
  17. ^ Bonnie, R.J. et al. Criminal Law, Second Edition. Foundation Press, New York, NY: 2004, p. 865
  18. ^ Md. Code (2013), Criminal Law Art., § 2-201(A)(4).

Further reading

  • R v Serné (1887) 16 Cox CC 311.
  • Binder, Guyora (October 2004). "The Origins of American Felony Murder Rules". Stanford Law Review. 

External links

  • New York Times on the felony murder rule as "a distinctively American legal doctrine"
  • CBS News story on the felony murder rule in California (Brandon Hein case)
  • Prisons Foundation objections to the rule
  • Arizona Supreme Court on the rule and the death penalty
  • The case of Lisl Auman of Colorado, charged with felony murder for a killing that took place during an ongoing crime for which she was already in custody Jeff Kass, Rocky Mountain News March 18, 2001; "Lawyers debate centuries-old legal concept."
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