SAN FRANCISCO — California’s felony murder rule does not extend to a burglar who caused a fatal traffic accident 60 miles from the scene of the crime, the California Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

Distinguishing a 2004 precedent and subsequent Judicial Council jury instruction, the court clarified that a burglary is complete for purposes of felony murder once the perpetrator reaches a point of temporary safety.

"This court did not intend to change this well-settled principle or to expand the scope of the felony-murder rule when it decided a related, but different, issue in [People v.] Cavitt," Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye wrote for a unanimous court.

Thursday’s decision, People v. Wilkins, set aside the first-degree murder conviction of Cole Wilkins, who stole appliances from a residential construction site under cover of darkness. Wilkins didn’t secure the merchandise in his truck, though, and an hour’s drive later, before anyone had discovered the crime, a stove fell off the truckbed into freeway traffic. It caused another motorist to swerve and hit a big rig truck, killing the motorist.

At trial Wilkins’ attorney asked that the jury be instructed with CALCRIM 3261, which states that a burglary is complete when the perpetrator successfully escapes from the scene, is no longer being chased and has unchallenged possession of the property. Orange County Superior Court Judge Richard Toohey refused to give that instruction because of an annotation cautioning against use of it in felony murder cases, based on Cavitt.

But Cavitt, Cantil-Sakauye wrote Thursday, was about accomplice liability, not direct perpetrators. "The referenced language in Cavitt," she wrote, "should be understood in the context of the facts of that case."

Richard Levy argued the case for Wilkins. Deputy attorney general Steven Oetting argued for the government.