This is an audio case brief of State v. Contreras, 46 P. 3d 661 (Nev. 2002) (en Bank). The audio brief provides a full case analysis. However a written summary of the case is provided below.
Ten defendants were charged with open murder with the use of a deadly weapon, battery with the use of a deadly weapon, burglary, and conspiracy to commit battery for an incident that occurred on August 23, 1998 at the Roundhouse Motel in Carson City.
Limited facts were submitted to the court. However, based on the facts that were presented to the court, it appears that prior to the incident resulting in the charged crimes, On of the defendants Evans was involved in a separate altercation at the Roadhouse motel. The police arrived and investigated that incident. Later that evening, apparently in retaliation for the previous altercation, Evans allegedly gathered the other nine defendants, and they proceeded back to the motel with metal and wooden clubs. The defendants knocked on a motel room door, and when the door opened, rushed into the room and proceeded to beat Samuel Resendiz and Carlos Lainez. Resendiz died as a result of his injuries.
One of the two specified alternatives in the open murder charge was first-degree felony murder. On this charge, the State alleged that the defendants:
Did, acting in concert and by preexisting plan, willfully and unlawfully, with malice aforethought, kill and murder one SAMUEL RESENDIZ, a human being, during the perpetration of a burglary, by entering a motel room with the intent then and there to apply force and violence with wooden or metal clubs and/or fists against the person of some or all of the occupants therein.
The defendants filed a motion to dismiss the first-degree felony-murder charge based on the merger doctrine. The district court granted the motion to dismiss the felony-murder charge.
The State appeals.
The issue before the court is whether the merger doctrines bars the application of the felony murder rule for the enumerated crime of burglary.
first-degree felony murder is a murder that is committed in the perpetration or attempted perpetration of certain enumerated crimes, including burglary. The felonious intent involved in the underlying felony is deemed, by law, to supply the malicious intent necessary to characterize the killing as a murder, and because felony murder is defined by statute as first-degree murder, no proof of the traditional factors of willfulness, premeditation, or deliberation is required for a first-degree murder conviction.
Here is how the court applied this rule to the facts of this case.
Since the Nevada court, before which this case sits had never considered the merger doctrine in a first degree felony murder case where the underlying felony was burglary, the court compared how two other states, California and New York, had ruled on such cases.
In People v Wilson, a case from a California Supreme court, the defendant was charged with felony murder based on burglary. The burglary was alleged to have occurred when the defendant broke into his wife’s home with the intent to assault her with a deadly weapon.
There, the California court found that the merger doctrine barred the application of the felony murder rule because the only basis for finding a felonious entry is the intent to commit an assault with a deadly weapon. The entry would be nonfelonious but for the intent to commit the assault, and the assault is an integral part of the homicide and is included in fact in the offense charged.
The California court added that the purpose of the felony-murder rule, to deter felons from killing negligently or accidentally, is not met when the underlying felony has the same general mental purpose as the homicide – to physically harm the victim. Therefore, in Wilson, the California Supreme Court merged the two crimes and held that a felony-murder conviction was not appropriate because the intent in committing the burglary was the same as the intent in committing the homicide.
The Nevada District court which dismissed the charges against the defendants in this case relied on the California Supreme court in its decision.
The New York court however, followed a different approach. The New York Court focused its rational on the fact that the burglary occurred in the victim’s home.
In People v. Miller, a case from New York, the New York court held that any burglary, including one based on intent to assault, justifies application of the felony-murder rule. The New York court’s rationale was that homicide is more likely to result when the assault is committed within the victim’s home rather than in the street, even if the criminal intent in both locations is the same.
The current court before which the felony murder charge against the 10 defendants sit, agreed with the state of New York’s rational because the likelihood of harm to individuals is greater when they are encountered in a dwelling or an enclosed space.
In so doing, the court sates that:
Although Nevada’s statutory scheme is basically the same as California’s, and the purpose of the felony-murder statute has been stated to be the same, we find the reasoning of the New York court on this issue more persuasive. The Nevada Legislature has specifically included burglary as one of the crimes that can escalate a homicide to first-degree murder without the necessity of proving premeditation and deliberation. There is a rational basis for including burglary in the felony-murder statute, even when the criminal intent behind the burglary is assault or battery. In People v. Wilson, the California court minimizes the impact of the location of an assault. Yet the likelihood of harm to individuals is greater when they are encountered in a dwelling or an enclosed space where escape or outside intervention is less likely than if they are encountered on the street. In the instant case, it certainly appears that the attack in a motel room held greater risk of homicide for the victims than if they had been outside and better able to escape or receive help.
We do not believe it is appropriate to apply the merger doctrine to felony murder when the underlying felony is burglary, regardless of the intent of the burglary. The legislative language is clear, and we are not persuaded that any policy considerations should override the legislature’s determination that burglary should be one of the enumerated felonies appropriate to elevate a homicide to felony murder. We, therefore, hold that the district court was incorrect in dismissing the felony-murder charge against the respondents.
To conclude, the order of the order of the district court is reversed, and the case remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.