Under California homicide laws, manslaughter charges apply in situations where a person causes the death of another person, but the facts of the case may not support a murder charge. Typically, the distinguishing fact between murder and manslaughter convictions rests on whether the state can prove the defendant acted with “malice aforethought” – that is, a prior intention that preceded the moment in which the death occurred. California prosecutors can charge defendants with one of three types of manslaughter: voluntary, involuntary and vehicular.
The penalties for manslaughter convictions in California range from one year or less in the county jail to state prison terms of 11 years, although in some involuntary manslaughter cases, the court may suspend the one-year sentence and order probation.
What Is Manslaughter?
In California, manslaughter is considered a very serious crime. It is secondary to murder in terms of the severity of its potential legal consequences, although both involve the unlawful taking of another person’s life. Manslaughter is classified as a felony, not the lesser offense known as a misdemeanor, and is subject to longer prison sentences.
Manslaughter is therefore one of several potential homicide charges. Homicide is considered the unlawful taking of human life without justification. The category of criminal offenses known as manslaughter fills the gap between justified homicide, such as killing someone in self-defense or to prevent a very serious violent crime, and murder, which is the taking of a life with malice or intent.
Read More: California Voluntary Manslaughter Laws: Crimes and Penalties
Voluntary vs. Involuntary Manslaughter
California manslaughter laws allow prosecutors to charge defendants with voluntary or involuntary manslaughter, depending on the facts of each case. Whether a defendant is charged with voluntary or involuntary manslaughter is usually a decision made by the prosecutor based on whether the state can prove that the defendant intended to, or was grossly indifferent to, causing the victim's death. This is different from the intent required in a murder charge, which requires premeditation or planning.
In the case of voluntary manslaughter, that decision often comes down to whether the killing took place in the midst of a heated argument or sudden provocation. If so, the killing is said to have occurred in the “heat of passion.” The emotional disturbance that overtakes the defendant in these cases helps establish that there was no preexisting malice, which would otherwise support a murder charge.
As a practical matter, defendants are often charged with voluntary manslaughter and murder simultaneously. In these cases, the manslaughter charge is offered as an alternative for the jury to consider if it thinks the prosecutors failed to prove the more serious crime of murder.
Involuntary manslaughter cases generally involve completely unintentional deaths. Usually, these charges are brought where the defendant acted recklessly and the act resulted in the death of the victim. Involuntary manslaughter charges may also be brought where the defendant was engaged in some kind of criminal activity that didn’t amount to a felony, and during the commission of that misdemeanor offense unintentionally caused the death of another.
Vehicular Manslaughter Offenses
The charge of vehicular manslaughter in California is a special type of manslaughter charge set out in California Penal Code 192. In vehicular manslaughter, the weapon used to bring about the death of the victim must be a vehicle that was operated by the defendant. Defendants can be charged with vehicular manslaughter even in cases where they had no malice or intent to kill, just as with other manslaughter offenses.
Vehicular manslaughter charges are often brought in cases where the defendant operated a vehicle under the influence of an intoxicating substance, such as alcohol or drugs. By operating the vehicle under the influence of a substance that creates a likelihood of risk and danger to other people, the defendant is said to be acting with gross indifference to the safety of others.
When a death occurs as a result of that intoxication and indifference, the defendant is subject to a charge of vehicular manslaughter, at a minimum. Where the defendant causes the victim's death in the pursuit of a plan to achieve financial gain, PC 192(c)(3) makes it clear that the prosecution may also bring murder charges against the defendant, in appropriate cases.
Heat of Passion and Voluntary Manslaughter in California
The circumstances that amount to provocation or “heat of passion” sufficient to qualify the case for voluntary manslaughter charges, as opposed to murder, generally involve fairly extreme emotional experiences. Examples of incidents or provocations that support the lesser charge of manslaughter include:
- The murder of a loved one or family member.
- Infidelity on the part of the defendant’s spouse or lover.
- A heated physical fight between the victim and the defendant.
- The trespass of a violent, angry gang on a defendant’s private property resulting in a death.
The crucial question in “heat of passion” cases is whether the defendant’s emotional disturbance is sufficiently strong to override his reasoning or judgment. Additionally, the provocation in question must be strong enough to have caused a reasonably prudent person to respond violently in that heightened emotional state instead of acting on good judgment.
Courts in California have ruled that if there is a cooling period between the act of provocation and the death of the victim, then murder charges may be more appropriate. For example, if the defendant discovers that their spouse was engaged in an affair on Monday, and on the following Friday kills the spouse’s lover, those intervening days may mean the defendant is not eligible for voluntary manslaughter charges. In that case, the prosecutor will seek an indictment for murder based on premeditation.
Heat of Passion Exception in California
California Penal Code Section 192(f) specifically excludes any discovery or disclosure of the victim’s “actual or perceived gender, gender identity, gender expression or sexual orientation” as a claimed provocation that justifies a charge of the lesser offense of manslaughter. This section also excludes unwanted sexual or romantic overtures the victim may have made towards the defendant.
In practical terms, this means that no defendant can successfully raise the so-called “gay panic” or “trans panic” defense to a charge of murder in order to knock the murder charge down to the lesser voluntary manslaughter offense.
For example, if the defendant and victim are engaged in a romantic interlude, during which the defendant learns that the victim is transgender, the defendant may not claim that discovery as a defense to a murder charge. He cannot argue that he should be charged with voluntary manslaughter instead of murder on the grounds that this discovery so inflamed his emotions that he could not control his subsequent actions. Other defenses may still apply, but the California statute says that such a provocation is not objectively reasonable.
Manslaughter and Murder in California
The California criminal laws distinguish between manslaughter and murder based on the defendant’s “malice aforethought.” Murder may be either first degree or second degree. First-degree murder is the more serious of the two and carries stiffer penalties, including the death penalty, if special circumstances are found.
First Degree Murder
Generally, first-degree murder means a sentence of 25 years to life in a California prison.
First-degree murder may be charged in three different scenarios:
- When the murder is carried out using specified types of weapons or modalities, including poison, weapons of mass destruction, torture or lying in wait.
- When the murder is premeditated, willful and deliberate.
- When the murder is committed while the defendant is participating in specific felonies, such as the felony murder rule.
Second Degree Murder
Second-degree murder is any homicide that meets the statutory definition of murder, but does not qualify for first-degree murder charges. Defendants convicted of second-degree murder in California are usually sentenced to 15 years to life in a California prison.
Differences Between Manslaughter and Murder in California
The main difference between murder and manslaughter in California is the requirement for a charge of murder that the defendant acted with “malice aforethought.” This phrase essentially refers to the defendant’s intent. If the defendant wanted the victim’s death to occur and acted to bring that death about, the malice requirement is satisfied.
By way of contrast, there is no such requirement for manslaughter. In both involuntary and voluntary manslaughter cases, the prosecution is not obligated to prove any prior intention to bring about the death in question. The defendant may be convicted of involuntary manslaughter even where the possibility of the victim’s death never occurred to the defendant.
Murder and manslaughter also differ in terms of the possible sentences that can be handed down for each charge. Generally, manslaughter convictions are punishable by between one and 11 years in state prison, depending on the specific charge on which the defendant was convicted.
Degrees of Manslaughter in California
Unlike the charge of murder, a manslaughter charge does not vary by degrees of the offense. In other words, a defendant may be charged with voluntary manslaughter or involuntary manslaughter, but there is no “second-degree voluntary manslaughter” charge.
Manslaughter charges and their associated penalties vary according to certain facts, mainly the presence or absence of provocation or “heat of passion.” Defendants who act with an intent to kill in the moment of committing that homicide may be charged with murder if the state can prove “malice aforethought” (that is, preceding the moment of the crime) or voluntary manslaughter if malice aforethought cannot be established.
Involuntary Manslaughter in California
Involuntary manslaughter cases, by way of contrast, typically involve gross negligence instead of specific malice. These charges apply where defendants have no intention of killing anyone, but by their conduct or intent to commit some other, unrelated crime wind up causing the death of another person.
Vehicular Manslaughter Charges
Vehicular manslaughter is a special classification of manslaughter that usually concerns an inflated disregard for the safety of other people, even where there is no specific intent to harm the victim who was killed. As long as the instrument by which the defendant causes the death is a vehicle of some kind, vehicular manslaughter is an appropriate charge.
California Manslaughter Sentencing Guidelines
In California, the sentence that follows a conviction for manslaughter depends on the type of manslaughter charged as well as the facts of the case. Judges are given some discretion in assessing each defendant’s case for mitigating and aggravating factors and in handing down the sentence.
Voluntary manslaughter may be punished by either three, six or 11 years in state prison, as prescribed by California Penal Code Section 193. Involuntary manslaughter sentences are for two, three or four years.
Vehicular manslaughter penalties vary depending on the activity the driver defendant was engaged in at the time of the death. The sentence also depends upon which Penal Code subsection the defendant is charged and convicted under, and ranges between one and 10 years:
- When the defendant is convicted under Penal Code 192(c)(1), which addresses driving with gross negligence in the commission of a misdemeanor or a legal act, the sentence may be up to one year in the county jail, or two, four or six years imprisonment in the state prison.
- When the defendant is convicted under Penal Code 192(c)(2), which addresses driving a vehicle in the commission of a misdemeanor but without gross negligence, the defendant may be sentenced to a maximum of one year in the county jail.
- When the defendant is convicted under Penal Code 192(c)(3), which addresses deaths caused by collisions or accidents that were intentionally caused for the purpose of financial gain, the defendant may be sentenced to the state prison for either four, six or 10 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
- Shouse California Law Group: Penal Code 192 - California's Voluntary Manslaughter Law
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.