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Will the Natural and Probable Consequences Doctine be Rejected in California?

by | Sep 1, 2014 | Firm News |

A majority of murder, and other violent crimes, in California are gang related. Indeed, most of the post-conviction work that I have taken part in involves allegations of gang affiliation. Due to the nature of such crimes — multiple individuals and lack of physical or testimonial evidence, the prosecution necessarily relies upon aider and abettor theories of criminal liability.

Under an aider and abettor theory, defendants can be convicted if they merely assist, encourage, or facilitate a crime. More specifically, they do not have to be the actual perpetrator of the physical crime against the victim.

Moreover, a defendant can be convicted if he or she aided a “target” crime, which naturally and foreseeably could have led to a more violent crime — like murder.

In June of this year, however, the California Supreme Court curbed the “natural and probable consequences” doctrine. The criminal doctrine allows for the prosecution of aiders and abettors when they participate in a crime that was “reasonably foreseeable” to the target crime. In sum, an individual can be guilty of murder, if he assisted in a crime, which murder was a “natural and probable consequence.” The rationale of the doctrine is deterring accomplices from partaking in criminal acts that may foreseeably lead to other more violent crimes.But in People v. Chiu (2014) 59 Cal.4th 155, the California Supreme Court held that a defendant can never be convicted of first degree premeditated murder on a natural and probable consequence theory. In Chiu, the defendant engaged in a street brawl involving 25 youths. The high school students fought one another indiscriminately until one of them shot and killed another young man. The defendant was charged with first-degree murder under the theory that he aided and abetted an “assault,” which premeditated murder of the perpetrator was a natural and probable consequence. Defendant was sentenced to 25 years to life after he was found guilty of first-degree murder. The California Supreme Court reversed because they did not think that the defendant could have had the mental intent necessary for first degree murder.

Now prosecutors must rely on evidence to show that defendants had the specific intent to aid a premeditated murder. It is insufficient to argue the natural and probable consequence doctrine, as Chiu negated its application to first-degree murder cases. This decision implies that the California Supreme Court wants to depart from the wide application of the natural and probable consequence doctrine. Chiu stated, in part:

“[T]he connection between the defendant’s culpability and the perpetrators premeditative state is too attenuated to impose aider and abettor liability for first degree murder under the natural and probable consequences doctrine, especially in light of the severe penalty involved and … the public policy concern of deterrence.”

It appears that Justice Chin opens up to the possibility that there may be other instances where an element of the non-target crime is so detached that the natural and probable consequence theory would not serve public policy. Other states do not even apply the natural and probable consequences theory, so it’s possible that the California Supreme Court would withdrawal, or at least curb, its unjust application.

In fact, California may reject the entire doctrine. The California Supreme Court has granted review of a separate natural and probable consequence doctrine case in People v. Smith (Vince Bryan), S210898, D060317 Fourth Appellate District, Division 1.

Violent crimes, instigated by gang rivalries, are senseless and destructive to the community. But, when individuals are convicted of crimes that they did not intend or anticipate in directly, it also hurts the community. Many young men are duped into following irresponsible older gang members, who have no regard for societal mores. Lawbreakers should, and need, to be punished. Let’s just make sure that the punishment is just and follows the rule of law.