News Chopper Down

Who’s responsible for the deaths of the journalists covering that car chase in Phoenix?

Helicopter crash. Click image to expand.
The remains of a helicopter from the midair collision in Phoenix

Two news choppers crashed into each other Friday * while covering a police car chase in Phoenix. The local authorities say the fleeing suspect might be charged with the deaths of the four people who went down in the helicopters. If you’re in a car chase with the cops and someone happens to die, are you liable for murder?

Yes, in some cases. It all depends on why you’re running and where you are. In most states, you can be convicted of first-degree murder, even if you didn’t intend for someone to die. These so-called “felony murders” apply to those deaths that take place during the commission of certain types of felonies, like robbery, burglary, rape, and arson. Laws vary from state to state; Michigan counts carjacking as such an offense, while West Virginia puts delivery of drugs on the list. Some states also define fleeing from the crime as part of the crime itself, which means that if police cars are pursuing a burglar and another motorist has a fatal accident trying to get out of the way, then the burglar can be charged with first-degree murder. Without a felony-murder statute, that person could be charged for manslaughter, negligent homicide, or second-degree murder instead.

Does it matter that the reporters in the fatal helicopter crash presumably put themselves in harm’s way? Probably. The county attorney technically can charge the fleeing suspect with four counts of murder, but it’s unclear how strong the argument would be in practice. A judge might decide not to apply felony murder because the cause of the crash was only loosely related to the chase. Or a jury might acquit the driver because he couldn’t possibly have foreseen these outcomes. In other words, a reasonable person could expect traffic deaths to result from a car chase. But it might be unreasonable to expect a car chase to cause a collision between choppers pursuing a breaking news story.

In the 1970s, some states began to get rid of felony murder, or to classify the unintentional deaths under lesser charges like manslaughter. But the statutes remain a gray area, dependent on the particulars of each case. In 1997, police in Colorado were chasing a couple after a break-in, first by car and then on foot. The woman, Lisl Auman, was captured and handcuffed in a police car; meanwhile, her partner ran through townhouses and exchanged fire with a police officer, killing him. Auman was convicted of murdering the cop on the grounds that her actions led to the policeman’s death.

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Explainer thanks Jim Belanger of Lewis and Roca, Christopher Dupont of Arizona Attorneys for Criminal Justice, Jonathan Klick of Florida State University, and Natman Schaye of Schaye & Associates.

Correction, July 31, 2007: The article originally stated that the crash occurred on Sunday. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)