It is illegal in California to take the life of someone else without legal justification. Manslaughter – whether voluntary or involuntary manslaughter – is a lesser offense to homicide. If you are facing charges for manslaughter in California, it is important that you understand the nature of the charges against you, the potential consequences of conviction and the possible defenses that you may be able to raise.
California classifies manslaughter into two categories: voluntary and manslaughter. (There is also vehicular manslaughter if a vehicle was used in the killing).1 The key distinction between these offenses is whether causing harm was intended or not. Voluntary manslaughter occurs during a sudden quarrel or heat of passion.2 Voluntary manslaughter can be charged when the defendant intentionally killed another person or committed acts with a conscious disregard for human life.
The key distinction between manslaughter and murder is whether the defendant acted with “malice aforethought.”3 If a person kills another person during a sudden quarrel or in the heat of passion, it is not considered murder but instead voluntary manslaughter, which legally justifies a reduced charge.
Sudden Quarrel or Heat of Passion
California courts define a killing that occurs during a sudden quarrel or heat of passion if:
- The defendant was provoked
- In response to provocation, the defendant acted rashly or under the influence of intense emotion
- The provocation was sufficient enough that it would have caused an average person to act rashly4
Additionally, there must not have been enough time between the provocation and the killing that the defendant would have been able to cool off.
Involuntary manslaughter occurs when a person commits a crime that is not a felony, an unlawful act or a lawful act in an unlawful manner.5 The defendant’s actions must rise to the level of criminal negligence and result in the victim’s death.
Criminal negligence is a level beyond ordinary carelessness or negligence. This level is met when the defendant satisfies the following criteria:
- The defendant acted in a reckless manner that creates a high risk of death or great bodily injury
- A reasonable person would have known that acting in this manner would create this type of risk
In some situations, involuntary manslaughter can arise due to a failure to perform a legal duty.
While the possible penalty for murder is much more severe, serious time can still result from a conviction of manslaughter. Potential prison time may be three, six or eleven years for voluntary manslaughter6 and involuntary manslaughter can result in time of two, three or four years.7
You may face other penalties, including:
- A fine up to $10,000
- The loss of your right to bear arms
- Community service
- Counseling services
- Other conditions the court believes are logically related to the case
Defenses to Manslaughter
There may be a number of legal defenses to charges of manslaughter, such as:
- Self-defense – The killing of another person may be justified when you kill to protect yourself or another person from being killed, suffering great bodily harm, being robbed, being raped or being the victim of another serious crime. You have the legal right in these circumstances to take whatever steps are reasonably necessary to protect against this harm.
- Imperfect self-defense – In an imperfect self-defense, the defendant believes that he or someone else was in imminent danger of great bodily harm or death and believed deadly force was reasonably necessary under the circumstances but one of these beliefs turned out to be incorrect, the defendant’s conduct may not be completely unpunishable, but the charges could be reduced or this fact can result in a mitigating factor.
- Accident – If the death occurred because of an accident, this defense may be used to escape criminal culpability.
- Insanity – Individuals who do not understand the nature of their act or cannot distinguish the difference between right and wrong may be able to raise an insanity defense.
Another way to defend against these types of charges is by demonstrating that one of the elements that defines the crimes were not met. The defendant may argue that one of the following elements identified below were not met. Because the prosecutor has the burden of proof of establishing the defendant’s guilt by proof beyond a reasonable doubt, if one of the elements is missing, the defendant should not be convicted.
The defendant may argue that there was no criminal intent. He or she would assert that the death was an accident or that the defendant had no intent to kill or cause great bodily harm.
Another possible defense is that the defendant was not committing a crime, engaging in an unlawful act or completing a lawful act in an unlawful manner. If the defendant was acting legally even if someone got killed, a conviction should not be made because a critical element is missing.
Finally, the defendant may argue that his or her behavior did not rise to the requisite level. He or she may not have been acting recklessly with a high risk of death or great bodily injury or in a criminally negligent manner. Another version of this defense is asserting that a reasonable person would not have considered the defendant’s actions to be likely to result in great bodily injury or death. If the defendant can establish this, the prosecution will not be able to establish this necessary element.
1 See Penal Code 192(c).
2 Penal Code 192(a) – Defines voluntary manslaughter as “the unlawful killing of a human being without malice” that occurs “upon a sudden quarrel or heat of passion.”
3 California Jury Instructions, Criminal, CALJIC 8.40 – California’s manslaughter law. (“Every person who unlawfully kills another human being [without malice aforethought but] either with an intent to kill, or with conscious disregard for human life, is guilty of voluntary manslaughter in violation of Penal Code section 192, subdivision (a). [There is no malice aforethought if the killing occurred [upon a sudden quarrel or heat of passion] [or] [in the actual but unreasonable belief in the necessity to defend [oneself] [or] [another person] against imminent peril to life or great bodily injury].]”)
4 Judicial Council of California Criminal Jury Instruction, CALCRIM 570 – California’s voluntary manslaughter law. Explained as “The defendant killed someone because of a sudden quarrel or in the heat of passion if:  The defendant was provoked;  As a result of the provocation, the defendant acted rashly and under the influence of intense emotion that obscured (his/her) reasoning or judgment; AND  The provocation would have caused a person of average disposition to act rashly and without due deliberation, that is, from passion rather than from judgment.”)
5 Penal Code 192(b) PC – Defines involuntary manslaughter as “the commission of an unlawful act, not amounting to a felony; or in the commission of a lawful act which might produce death, in an unlawful manner, or without due caution and circumspection” that results in the death of another.
6 Penal Code 193(a) PC – (“Voluntary manslaughter is punishable by imprisonment in the state prison for 3, 6, or 11 years.”)
7 Penal Code 193(b) PC – (“Involuntary manslaughter is punishable by imprisonment pursuant to subdivision (h) of Section 1170 for two, three, or four years.