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First Degree Murder–Substantial Concurrent Causation Theory (Sanchez) and Impact of Chiu and SB 1437

Case Name: People v. Carney (2023) __ Cal.5th __
Case #: S260063
Last Updated: July 20, 2023

(1) Does the “substantial concurrent causation” theory of liability of People v. Sanchez (2001) 26 Cal.4th 834 permit a conviction for first degree murder if the defendants did not fire the shot that killed the victim? (2) What impact, if any, do People v. Chiu (2014) 59 Cal.4th 155 and Senate Bill No. 1437 (Stats. 2018, ch. 1015, § 1, subd. (f)) have on the rule of Sanchez?

On 10/13/2021, the parties were directed to serve and file letter briefs on or before November 4, 2021 addressing the significance, if any, of Senate Bill No. 775 (Stats. 2021, ch. 551) to the issues presented in this case.

A defendant’s life-threatening deadly acts in a gun battle may be the proximate cause of a bystander’s death, even where someone else fired the fatal shot. A jury convicted two brothers (the Mitchells) of first degree murder and other offenses based on evidence they initiated a gun battle with Carney and others outside a barbershop in the middle of the day. During the public shootout, a stray shot by Carney killed a bystander. On appeal, the Mitchells argued that, because the fatal shot was fired by Carney, their actions were not a proximate cause of the death. The Court of Appeal affirmed. The California Supreme Court granted review to consider whether the “substantial concurrent cause” analysis of proximate cause in People v. Sanchez (2001) 26 Cal.4th 834 permits the Mitchells’ convictions. Held: Affirmed. Sanchez involved a similar gun battle in public, but it was unclear whether the defendant or a rival gang member had fired a fatal shot that killed a bystander. The court held that the defendant’s commission of life-threatening deadly acts in connection with his attempt on the rival gang member’s life was a substantial concurrent, and hence proximate, cause of the victim’s death. After analyzing proximate cause principles and Sanchez, the court here concluded that Sanchez’s “substantial concurrent cause” analysis is not limited to situations in which it is unclear who among the participants in a gun battle actually fired the fatal shot. Rather, Sanchez establishes that the conduct of a participant in a gun battle who did not fire the fatal shot may contribute substantially and concurrently to—and be a proximate cause of—the victim’s death. Based on the evidence in this case, the Mitchells’ first degree murder convictions are consistent with Sanchez.

The proximate cause analysis in Sanchez (which refers to a death that is “a direct, natural and probable consequence of” the defendant’s act) deals with the actus reus of a crime and is not impacted by People v. Chiu (2014) 59 Cal.4th 155 and Senate Bill No. 1437. The Mitchells also argued that Sanchez’s “substantial concurrent cause” analysis is a type of natural and probable consequences liability that is inconsistent with Chiu and SB 1437. The court disagreed. Although the proximate cause instruction quoted in Sanchez “refers to a death that is ‘a direct, natural and probable consequence of’ the defendant’s act, it does not concern the imputed malice theory of criminal liability that is part of the natural and probable consequences doctrine of accomplice liability affected by Chiu and Senate Bill No. 1437.” The Mitchells incorrectly assumed that the term “natural and probable consequences” refers only to an aider and abettor’s vicarious liability. The definition of proximate cause deals with the actus reus of a crime, not the mens rea of a crime. Chiu and SB 1437 do not impact the question of Sanchez’s application in this case. The trial court, consistent with Sanchez, properly instructed the jury on substantial concurrent causation with respect to the bystander’s death.

This case was decided on 7/20/2023. Justice Jenkins authored the opinion of the court (unanimous decision).

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