In California, a person who causes the death of someone else may be charged with either murder or manslaughter, depending on the facts of the case. Where the state does not believe it can prove that the defendant acted with what is called malice aforethought, the charge is most likely to be some form of manslaughter, rather than murder. In this context, malice means an intent to cause a specific result – the death of the victim.
Under current California statutes, three manslaughter charges are possible. Defendants may be charged with voluntary, involuntary or vehicular manslaughter, with possible penalties ranging from detention in a county jail for a year or less to imprisonment in a state prison of up to 11 years.
Felony Voluntary Manslaughter
Felony voluntary manslaughter charges are appropriate where a person takes another’s life without justification. Justification can be self-defense or the prevention of another serious and violent crime.
Voluntary manslaughter cases often involve what is called heat of passion. This phrase describes an overwrought or heated emotional state and typically arises in the context of severe emotional upset that causes the defendant to take another's life. Voluntary manslaughter courts in California have ruled that these circumstances often qualify as sufficient provocation to support manslaughter, as opposed to murder:
- A family member’s murder.
- An extramarital affair, where the victim is either the defendant’s spouse or the spouse’s lover.
- A physical altercation between the defendant and victim where injuries result.
- A menacing gang trespassing on defendant’s property and issuing threats.
In these types of cases, the critical factor is whether the level of emotional distress was severe enough to outweigh the defendant’s ability to engage in critical thinking or reasoning. That emotional stress must meet the so-called reasonable person test: The level of provocation must have been powerful enough to make a reasonably prudent person react purely from emotion instead of behaving in accordance with the law and sound judgment.
California courts have held that if a sufficient amount of time has passed between whatever caused the emotional disturbance and the act leading to the victim’s death, the defendant is said to have experienced a cooling off period, and voluntary manslaughter based on heat of passion is no longer available. Rather, such a defendant should be charged with murder.
For example, if Person A learns that Person B murdered A’s mother on Friday afternoon, stews about it for several days, then attacks Person B on the following Thursday, that passage of time may mean that A had enough time to cool off and think more calmly. In that case, California prosecutors could elect to pursue murder charges against A instead of manslaughter.
Read More: California Murder Laws: Manslaughter
Heat of Passion Exceptions to Murder Charges
Under California Penal Code Section 192(f), no defendant may argue that their heat of passion provocation was the result of learning the victim’s actual or perceived gender, gender identity, gender expression or sexual orientation. This section means that so-called “gay panic” or “trans panic” is not an allowed defense to charges of murder that could warrant a lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter.
As an example, if the defendant is engaged with the victim in a romantic setting, but learns during the course of that encounter that the victim is transgender, the defendant could theoretically argue that heat of passion circumstances existed sufficient to warrant a voluntary manslaughter charge. However, the California statute expressly prohibits this argument on the grounds that it is not objectively reasonable to be provoked to taking someone's life under these circumstances.
Different Scenarios of Involuntary Manslaughter
A charge of involuntary manslaughter – the unlawful killing of another person without malice aforethought – in California applies in three different scenarios:
- The death occurred while the defendant was committing some other unlawful act that was not a felony.
- The death occurred while the defendant was engaged in a lawful act which could reasonably result in death when undertaken in an unlawful manner.
- The death occurred while the defendant was acting without due care and circumspection, except acts related to driving a car, which are generally brought under vehicular manslaughter.
Death Occurred During Another Unlawful Act
In the first type of case, a defendant who is engaged in an activity that constitutes a misdemeanor and kills someone in the process of that act can be charged with involuntary manslaughter. For example, if the defendant waves a loaded weapon merely to frighten or intimidate another person, but in the ensuing struggle the gun discharges and kills the other person, the prosecutor can bring involuntary manslaughter charges.
Death Occurred During a Lawful Act in an Unlawful Manner
In the second example of a case involving a lawful act conducted in an unlawful manner, consider a defendant who, as a pharmacist, fills a prescription at a dosage much higher than the one prescribed. If the higher dose causes the death of the person taking the drug, involuntary manslaughter would be the appropriate charge. The pharmacist was engaged in the lawful act of filling prescription medications, but in an unlawful manner at a toxic dosage level.
Death Occurred when Defendant Acted with Due Care
In the third scenario, the defendant must have acted with recklessness or gross negligence to cause the death of another. For instance, someone who carelessly rests a heavy air conditioning unit on the ledge of an open window over a busy city sidewalk may be charged with involuntary manslaughter if the unit slips and falls onto a pedestrian, killing that person.
Vehicular Manslaughter Situations
California statutes also recognize another type of manslaughter. Vehicular manslaughter is specifically provided for and governed by the provisions of California Penal Code Section 192. This charge requires that the defendant use a motor vehicle as the instrumentality of the victim’s death. The prosecution is not required to prove intent or malice, as with other manslaughter offenses.
Often, vehicular manslaughter cases concern defendants who drive while under the influence of alcohol or some other intoxicant. However, this charge also applies in so-called road rage cases, where a defendant drives recklessly due to anger at road conditions or at another driver’s actions and causes an accident that results in someone's death.
Degrees of Manslaughter in California
Unlike murder, California manslaughter charges do not have degrees. The prosecution may charge a defendant with first-degree murder or voluntary manslaughter, or both, in appropriate cases, but not with second-degree voluntary manslaughter, as there is no such offense.
Manslaughter charges do vary based on underlying facts, such as heat of passion killings, which typically are charged as voluntary manslaughter. Cases involving gross negligence typically are charged as involuntary manslaughter.
Voluntary and Involuntary Manslaughter Sentences
California judges are granted some amount of discretion when analyzing specific cases for both aggravating and mitigating factors in order to arrive at a fair sentence. However, most California criminal charges carry a range of sentences that are established by statute.
For example, California Penal Code Section 193 provides that defendants convicted of voluntary manslaughter charges face anywhere from three to 11 years in state prison. Defendants who are convicted of involuntary manslaughter may be sentenced to two, three or four years.
Vehicular Manslaughter Sentence
The sentence for vehicular manslaughter varies according to the underlying facts, which also determine which subsection of Penal Code Section 192(c) applies to the case:
- Penal Code 192(c)(1): Driving with gross negligence in the commission of a misdemeanor or a legal act results in a sentence of one year in the county jail, or two, four or six years imprisonment in the state prison.
- Penal Code 192(c)(2): Driving a vehicle in the commission of a misdemeanor but without gross negligence results in a sentence of up to one year in the county jail.
- Penal Code 192(c)(3): Deaths caused by collisions or accidents that were intentionally caused for the purpose of financial gain are punished by state imprisonment terms for four, six or ten years.
- California Legislative Information: Penal Code 192
- California Legislative Information: Penal Code 193
- Justia: California Criminal Jury Instructions Number 570 - Voluntary Manslaughter: Heat of Passion - Lesser Included Offense
- FindLaw: California Voluntary Manslaughter Laws
- FindLaw: California Involuntary Manslaughter Laws
- Aizman Law Firm: Involuntary Manslaughter Laws Explained
Annie Sisk is a freelance writer who lives in upstate New York. She holds a B.A. in Speech from Catawba College and a J.D. from USC. She has written extensively for publications and websites in the business, management and legal fields.