People v. Dillon




California Supreme Court

Citation and Year

668 P.2d 697 (1983)

Constitutional Provision or State Statute

CAL. CONST. art. 1, § 17 (“cruel or unusual punishments”)

Nature of Case

Norman Dillon, a 17-year-old high school student, and a group of friends snuck onto farmland with the intent to steal marijuana. When the farmer approached with a shotgun, Dillon shot in his direction and killed him. Dillon was convicted of first degree felony murder and sentenced to mandatory life without parole.


Life without parole sentence for youth convicted of felony murder violates the state constitution’s antipunishment clause, and conviction must be reduced to second degree murder.


First, the court recognized that “that first degree felony murder encompasses a far wider range of individual culpability than deliberate and premeditated murder.” It also includes “a variety of unintended homicides resulting from reckless behavior, or ordinary negligence, or pure accident; it embraces both calculated conduct and acts committed in panic or rage, or under the dominion of mental illness, drugs, or alcohol; and it condemns alike consequences that are highly probable, conceivably possible, or wholly unforeseeable.”

Next the court noted the general constitutional limits on the state’s power to punish: “the state must exercise its power to prescribe penalties within the limits of civilized standards and must treat its members with respect for their intrinsic worth as human beings: ‘Punishment which is so excessive as to transgress those limits and deny that worth cannot be tolerated.’” A “punishment may violate the California constitutional prohibition ‘if, although not cruel or unusual in its method, it is so disproportionate to the crime for which it is inflicted that it shocks the conscience and offends fundamental notions of human dignity.’”

As for the proportionality analysis, the court emphasized that the “nature of the offense” includes the characteristics of the offender, and that “it is obvious that the courts must also view ‘the nature of the offender’ in the concrete rather than the abstract: although the Legislature can define the offense in general terms, each offender is necessarily an individual.” This part of the inquiry, then, “asks whether the punishment is grossly disproportionate to the defendant’s individual culpability as shown by such factors as his age, prior criminality, personal characteristics, and state of mind.” Here, the court found reduced culpability based on Dillon’s age and him acting out of panic and fear, not premeditation.