In State v. Groves, the Court examined whether aggravated fleeing a law enforcement officer–a fourth degree felony–can serve as the predicate for a felony murder charge. Writing for a unanimous Court, Justice Thomas explained that it can.
The facts of this case are simple: Defendants fled from police in a stolen car, leading them on a high-speed chase. The chase ended when defendants collided with another vehicle at an intersection, killing the other drivers.
Defendants were charged with both vehicular homicide and felony murder. The district court dismissed the felony murder charges, ruling that aggravated fleeing could not serve as the predicate for felony murder. The State sought interlocutory appeal, and the Supreme Court reversed.
A felony must satisfy three requirements before it can be the predicate to felony murder: (1) there must be a causal relationship between the felony and the homicide, (2) the felony must be independent of or collateral to the homicide, and (3) the felony must be inherently or foreseeably dangerous to human life. Here, the parties disagreed about only the second and third elements.
This case is mostly about the second factor–whether aggravated fleeing from law enforcement is independent of or collateral to homicide. In 2016, the Court adopted the “felonious purpose” test to decide this question. A crime’s objective is its felonious purpose, and if that purpose is something other than “to injure or kill,” the felony may serve as a predicate felony to felony murder.
Why does it matter? Homicide is punished differently based on the perceived moral culpability of the murderer. But felony murder can elevate any homicide to a first degree felony–the highest level of punishment. To prevent the State from using felony murder as an end run around the culpability requirements of the homicide laws, only certain felonies can serve as predicates for felony murder. The felonious purpose test is how a court makes that determination.
Looking at the aggravated fleeing statute, the Court determined that its purpose is felonious purpose is to flee from law enforcement to avoid apprehension. Because that is different from an intent to injure or kill, aggravated fleeing can serve as a predicate felony for felony murder.
The district court reasoned slightly differently. It believed that the felonious purpose of aggravated fleeing was to injure or kill the victim because the statute requires that the felony must be committed in a manner that endangers the life of another person. According to the Court, this substituted the Legislature’s ultimate concern in enacting the statute (protecting public safety) for the felonious purpose in committing the offense (evading the police). Although this may be a fine distinction, it does not seem difficult to apply to this particular case.
The Court’s opinion means that the State has satisfied the first two prongs for aggravated fleeing to serve as a predicate felony. The Court notes, however, that the district court still must decide the third factor. Specifically, the State must establish that while committing aggravated fleeing a law enforcement officer Defendants acted with a culpable mental state equivalent to that of a second-degree murder in that they knew their “acts create[d] a strong probability of death or great bodily harm.” The case now goes back for the district court to make that determination.
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