First-degree felony murder "drive-by shooting" conviction reversed

If a person has been accused of a crime, the consequences can be severe. However, often the severity of a crime is determined by the specific law under which the accused is charged. And if a crime is charged improperly under the applicable law, it is possible that the accused, working with their counsel, may be able to reverse the conviction.

The recent Minnesota Supreme Court case of State v. Hayes provides an example.

Was the incident a drive-by shooting?

In this case, a witness allegedly saw the defendant in a car grabbing a back seat passenger by the shirt and pointing a dark silver gun at him. After hearing a gunshot, the witness saw the back seat passenger exit the car, run across the street while holding his chest, and collapse on the sidewalk. The car then drove away, but several days later, the defendant was arrested.

The county medical examiner testified that the entry wound indicated the shooter fired the gun from no more than three or four feet away, and that the bullet's trajectory through the passenger's body was consistent with the theory that the passenger was leaning over to get out of the car when the shooter fired.

At trial, a jury found the defendant guilty of both first-degree felony murder while committing a drive-by shooting and second-degree intentional murder. The district court convicted the defendant of first-degree felony murder and sentenced him to life imprisonment with the possibility of release. The court did not decide the defendant's guilt or sentence him on the count of second-degree intentional murder.

Supreme Court interprets the statute

The question presented to the Minnesota Supreme Court was whether the prosecutors presented sufficient evidence to support the conviction of first-degree felony murder while committing a drive-by shooting. The argument on appeal focused on whether the defendant's conduct in shooting the car passenger was sufficient to constitute the offense of drive-by shooting-the "predicate felony," or underlying charge, necessary to convict him of a first-degree felony murder charge.

The defendant's attorney argued that he could not be guilty of a drive-by shooting under the language of the applicable statute because he did not fire his gun at or toward another motor vehicle or a building. The key question was whether the wording of the criminal statute created a separate, aggravated offense related to "drive-by shooting" which did not require firing at an occupied building or motor vehicle, in addition to shooting at a person.

In interpreting the words of the applicable statute, the Supreme Court determined that the statute indicated only a sentence-enhancement and not a separate offense. Thus, the evidence was insufficient to support the conviction for first-degree felony murder while committing a drive-by shooting since the drive-by shooting was not a separate offense under the law charged. Thus, the conviction was reversed and remanded for further proceedings.

Fight for your rights

Minnesota law designates different degrees of many crimes, such as assault or homicide, determined in large part by the circumstances of a case. For example, a first-degree murder charge could carry a sentence of life in prison without parole.

If you or a loved one faces charges of manslaughter, homicide or murder, you need a strong attorney looking out for your interests. Whether you are facing the frightening prospect of criminal charges for the first time or you have a previous offense on your record, seek an attorney who is ready to fight for your rights.