Monday, February 7, 2011
Criminal Law and Federalism: Explained!
As many of you may or may not know, the United States system of governance is based on a system called "federalism." While I could go on at length about the details of this system ad nauseam, the cliff notes version is that power is split between the state and federal government. This means that there are 51 relevant sources of law (plus city laws!), one from the federal government, and one from each state.
One of the fundamentals of any criminal law discussion is to know what area of law governs the topic, for the results could be much different depending on what state your are in, or if you're being charged with violating a federal statute. For this, and following discussions, for the sake of clarity, assume that we are in "Shepard Jurisdiction," which is independent of any state. Basically, I'll be talking about topics that are applicable to most, if not all of the states.
The first topic in this criminal law adventure is the "felony murder rule." This is a relatively simple concept, so I won't explain it in too much detail. The felony murder rule applies to situations where one or more persons are involved in the commission of a felony (must be co-conspirators, hostages at a bank don't apply). The rule tells us that when one or more persons (A, B, C, and D, for example) are involved in the commission of a felony (Bank Robbery, for example), and a murder is committed by one (A), the rest are equally culpable, without a required showing of mes rea (the bad mind, basically intent to commit the crime). That means that although B, C, and D had no intention of committing the murder, nor did they even know A would fly off the handle and shoot the bank teller in the head when he refused to give him the money, or even if A had brought a gun to the bank, they will all be guilty of first-degree murder.
The felony murder rule can seem harsh, which it is, but it is primarily used to curb the passive assent some have when crimes are being committed. That is to say, deter people from becoming involved in felonies in the first place. While the rule is typically only used for violent felonies, when the murder is committed during the felony or in furtherance of the felony, there have been some unfortunate examples of exactly how harsh it can be.
In Hines v. State: 578 S.E.2d 868 (Ga. 2003), Hines was convicted of first degree murder after he accidentally shot his friend in the back while hunting. If you've been carefully looking at the requirements of felony murder thus far, you'll know something is missing: the underlying violent felony. It turns out Mr. Hines was a convicted felon, and his possession of a hunting rifle was an inherently dangerous activity, and actually a felony.
So, as you can see, the felony murder rule is quite controversial, with some saying it takes away the requirement of mens rea, and others saying that it helps prevent murders from happening. Let me know what you think in the comments below!
As any prudent law student should say, I would be remiss if I didn't inform you that this blog is for information purposes ONLY. Any construction of it to create some sort of legal advice is on the readers own poor judgment, as a 1l is probably the second worst person you could get legal advice from (the first being a non-law student).
Also, due to the overwhelmingly split result, I'll focus primarily on criminal law for my discussions on law, and continue splitting my posts between MMA and law. Thanks for all that gave me advice!