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SB 1437: Changes to Murder Sentencing in California Explained

Posted in California Law,Criminal Defense,Sentencing on March 9, 2021

California Senate Bill 1437 was signed by Governor Jerry Brown in September 2018, and this law made significant changes to the state’s felony murder rule. The felony murder rule is a centuries-old legal doctrine that has been used to hold people automatically liable for first-after a murder if a death occurs during the commission of certain other felonies, such as robbery or home invasion, even if an individual had no intention of killing someone or aiding in the killing of a person. A 2018 survey of California prisons revealed that the felony murder rule, prior to this new law taking effect, disproportionately impacted young people of color and women.

What SB 1437 states

As of January 1, 2019, SB 1437 ended the practice of sentencing a person for first-degree murder if they did not commit homicide or even have knowledge that the homicide occurred. According to the language of this new law (we will call it the new felony murder rule), a person can only be guilty of “felony murder” if:

  1. The person is the actual killer.
  2. The person acted with the intent to kill, such as assisting the actual person who committed the murder or encouraging the actual person who committed the murder.
  3. The person was a major participant in the crime and acted with “reckless indifference to human life.”
  4. The victim was a police officer who was killed in the line of duty, and “the defendant knew or reasonably should have known that the victim was a peace officer engaged in the performance of his or her duties.”

Who is eligible for resentencing under SB 1437?

Based on how the law is written, the following people can be resentenced under SB 1437:

  • A person convicted of first-degree murder.
  • A person convicted of second-degree murder.
  • A person that accepted a plea deal who could have been convicted of first-degree or second-degree murder had they proceeded to trial, and who could not be convicted of first- or second-degree murder under the parameters of the new law.

If you have any questions about who can be resentenced under the new legislation, please reach out to a skilled criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. However, if you could have been charged with murder using the current legal definition of homicide, then you will not be eligible to be resentenced.

Possible relief granted by the court under SB 1437

There are a few possibilities of relief that can be granted by the court under SB 1437. This includes the following:

  1. Vacating the conviction. If the prosecution fails to meet the burden of proof to show that the petitioner could have been convicted of murder under the new law, then the prior conviction, and any allegations and enhancements attached to said conviction, shall be vacated.
  2. Resentencing the petitioner. If the petitioner can successfully challenge the murder conviction, the court will have to “resentence the petitioner on any remaining counts in the same manner as if the petitioner had not been previously sentenced, provided that the new sentence, if any, is not greater than the initial sentence.”

Properly understanding who will be eligible for relief from the court under the provisions of SB 1437 can be confusing. A qualified criminal defense attorney in Riverside with experience handling these claims and an understanding of the most recent changes in the law will be best able to help you navigate this process.