Homicide, which is the unlawful killing of another person, can result in a murder or manslaughter charge in California, depending upon the circumstances. For the crime to be charged as murder, the prosecutor must show you had ‘malice aforethought.’ This refers to intentions, planning and decisions related to the death of the other person. Malice may be demonstrated through planning or participating in dangerous or reckless activity. If, however, you commit a homicide without malice, a manslaughter charge is more likely. The key difference between murder and manslaughter under state law is your state of mind at the time of the death.
California state law defines three types of manslaughter:
For a voluntary manslaughter conviction, the state prosecutor must show that you committed the homicide during a fight or in the heat of passion. The circumstances and events that surround the homicide – the provocation or fight – establish there was a lack of malice that would otherwise lead to a murder charge. It is incumbent upon the prosecution to demonstrate the defendant had the intention to commit severe harm or death on the victim for the voluntary manslaughter charge to result in a conviction.
Acts that may qualify as provocation depend upon the case, but some common examples are:
- A fight involving actions by both the defendant and the victim
- Murder of a member of your family
- Adultery that was committed by the spouse of the defendant
Involuntary manslaughter most often refers to accidental homicides that occur during the commission of a non-felony crime, or reckless conduct during a legal activity. In California, involuntary manslaughter and vehicular homicide are separate crimes.
Homicide that happens during the commission of a felony often will result in a murder charge, not a manslaughter charge. If the homicide happens during the commission of a crime that was a misdemeanor, the state prosecutor must show the defendant had criminal intent to commit the non-felonious act. If you did not engage in a crime that caused the homicide, the state may not be able to prove involuntary manslaughter. It is possible you can show a lack of intent by demonstrating lack of knowledge or a reasonable mistake.
A California driver who causes the death of another party while driving may face charges of gross vehicular manslaughter, misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter, gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated or negligent vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated.
Generally, vehicular manslaughter in California by negligently causing the death of another party while in violation of a traffic law, such as running a red light, speeding or reckless driving. The difference between misdemeanor and gross vehicular manslaughter is the mental state of the driver. Misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter involves ordinary negligence. Gross vehicular manslaughter requires the prosecution to prove you that acted with gross negligence.
California Manslaughter Conviction
To be convicted of manslaughter in California, three elements must be proven:
- Someone was killed due to your actions
- The act was inherently dangerous to others, or was done with ‘reckless disregard’ for human life
- You knew or should have known that your conduct was dangerous to others
The state prosecutor also must prove in a voluntary manslaughter case that the alleged crime occurred in the heat of passion or a fight.
California Laws and Penalties
Being convicted for voluntary manslaughter in California is a ‘strike offense.’ This means if you are convicted of voluntary manslaughter, you will have a strike on your criminal record. If you are convicted of a felony later, your sentence could be could be doubled from what it could have been. If you get two strike offense in California, you will get 25 years to life in prison.
Being convicted of involuntary manslaughter can result in a term of two, three or four years in state prison. You also can receive a fine of up to $10,000. However, for some involuntary manslaughter convictions, you may serve your sentence in county jail instead of state prison. There was a change in sentence structure for more than 500 offenses in 2011. You also may qualify to serve out part of an involuntary manslaughter sentence in county jail, and then under the supervision of a probation officer.
Below are other penalties for various manslaughter charges in California:
- Misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter: Up to a year in county jail
- Felony vehicular manslaughter: Two, four or six years in state prison
- Accident caused for financial gain: If vehicular manslaughter was caused for a financial gain and resulted in death, you may receive 4, 6 or 10 years in state prison
- Fleeing the scene: If you flee the scene of an accident with vehicular manslaughter charged, you can receive an additional term of five years in state prison.
Be aware that in addition to criminal penalties, you also could face a wrongful death lawsuit brought by the family members of the victim. This can occur whether you are convicted of voluntary or involuntary manslaughter.
Manslaughter Enhancement Penalties
There can be enhancements to manslaughter charges if the prosecutor can show evidence in court. For example, if you are charged with vehicular manslaughter and left the scene of the crime, you could have five years added to your sentence.
Bail for Manslaughter Cases in California
To set bail, most California counties use a bail schedule. This guideline provides predetermined amounts that may be appropriate for various felonies and misdemeanors. Bail amounts can vary from county to county, but below are typical bail amounts for manslaughter charges:
- Involuntary: $50,000
- Voluntary: $100,000
- Vehicular: $50,000 to $250,000
Legal Defenses to Manslaughter Charges in California
Possible defenses for a voluntary manslaughter charge in this state are similar to other homicide charges. You and your defense attorney may try to prove that you did not actually commit the crime. Or, you may claim it was justifiable homicide, or that your behavior did not meet the standard of voluntary manslaughter. Below are more details:
- Innocence: Prosecutors must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you are guilty of the crime. Until that occurs, you are presumed innocent. To refute the accusations of the prosecution, you may claim you have an alibi or attack the evidence that shows you were at the scene of the crime.
- Self defense: This can be a perfect or imperfect claim of self defense. In a perfect claim, there is a ‘reasonable’ need for deadly force to protect your life and it involves no wrongdoing on your part. An imperfect claim of self defense involves an unreasonable notion that deadly force was needed, and may involve some criminal behavior on the part of the defendant.
- Insanity: If you meet the legal definition of insanity under state law, you will not be held accountable for your actions. To establish this defense, you must show you were unable to understand the consequences of your actions.
- Accidental killing: If you can prove that the homicide was an accident, the crime may be charged as involuntary manslaughter.
Similarly, you can defend yourself from an involuntary manslaughter charge with self defense. It also is possible to defend oneself against involuntary manslaughter by showing the prosecution has insufficient evidence. Your attorney may challenge the state prosecutor’s case by reexamining the evidence and conducting interviews with witnesses to the crime and expert witnesses as well.
Statute of Limitations
Under state law, the prosecutor has up to six years after the commission of the alleged offense to prosecute you for any crime that carries eight years or more in prison.
CA Manslaughter Cases
- Marine Found Guilty of Manslaughter in 2015 DWI Crash – A US Marine in southern California has been found guilty of gross vehicular manslaughter associated with the deaths of two women, but he was found not guilty of murder. Jason R. King was convicted of manslaughter for crashing head on into another vehicle, killing the two young women.
- Suspect in ‘Swatting’ Hoax Charged with Manslaughter – A man from Los Angeles, CA who was charged with making a hoax call that led to the death of a man has been charged with involuntary manslaughter. The police believe that Tyler Barriss made the call that sent police to the home of a man who had committed no crime. It appears that the alleged crime stemmed from an online fight over a $1.50 Call of Duty bet.
- California Manslaughter Trial Set for March 2018 – A trial date of March 27, 2018 has been set for a Chula Vista, CA man who left his vehicle on a freeway and caused the death of another man. David Olvera, 30, pleaded not guilty this week to charges of gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated in the death of Gregory Scott, 40. The man also was charged with hit and run with death, and two counts of injuring other drivers who crashed into his abandoned car.
- Man to Stand Trial for Manslaughter in 1996 Shooting Death – A man who was accused in a shooting death in Desert Hot Springs, CA more than 20 years ago was ordered last month to stand trial for manslaughter instead of for murder. Joseph Messer, 41, is accused of shooting a 17 year old boy in 1996 after confronting a group of teens outside the boy’s house.
- California Involuntary Manslaughter Laws. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://statelaws.findlaw.com/california-law/california-involuntary-manslaughter-laws.html
- California Negligent Vehicular Manslaughter Laws and Penalties. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.drivinglaws.org/resources/california-negligent-vehicular-manslaughter-laws-and-penalties.html
- California Criminal Statute of LImitations Laws. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://statelaws.findlaw.com/california-law/california-criminal-statute-of-limitations-laws.html