Voluntary Manslaughter: Heat of Passion
California Penal Code 192(a) defines voluntary manslaughter as a homicide committed “upon a sudden quarrel or heat of passion.” Usually, the prosecutor charges a defendant with murder, and, as a lesser included offense, manslaughter. Manslaughter is a “lesser included” offense of murder because the elements are the same except for the requirement in murder that a person act with malice. If the state charges a person with both murder and the lesser included offense of voluntary manslaughter, a homicide that would be murder is reduced to manslaughter if:
“Heat of passion” means any violent or intense emotion that causes a person to act impulsively. It is not limited to anger, rage, or any other specific emotion. It can be any violent or intense emotion that causes a person to act without deliberation and reflection.
Slight or remote provocation does not establish that a person acted in the heat of passion. The provocation must be of such a nature that a reasonable person would have acted the same way; that is, with impaired judgment. Sufficient provocation may occur over a short or long period of time.
A person must have acted under the direct and immediate influence of provocation. The time that elapses between the provocation and the homicide (the “cooling off” period) impacts whether a person can be said to have acted under the immediate influence of passion.
To establish that a person acted in the heat of passion, it is not enough to show that the person who committed the homicide actually felt provoked and acted with impaired judgment (“subjective” provocation). It is also necessary to show that a person of average disposition would have felt and acted with compromised judgment (“objective” provocation). California law recognizes, however, that a proper assessment of whether an average, reasonable person would have been provoked requires consideration of the specific circumstances surrounding the situation giving rise to the killing and the facts known to the defendant at the time of the killing.
Some circumstances cannot, by law, provide sufficient provocation to warrant a charge of voluntary manslaughter instead of murder. Provocation is not “objectively reasonable” if it results from:
the discovery of, knowledge about, or potential disclosure of the victim’s actual or perceived gender, gender identity, gender expression, or sexual orientation, including under circumstances in which the victim made an unwanted nonforcible romantic or sexual advance towards the defendant, or if the defendant and victim dated or had a romantic or sexual relationship.
Voluntary Manslaughter: Homicide Without Malice or With Conscious Disregard for Human Life
In California, a person may also be charged with and convicted of voluntary manslaughter if he or she kills intentionally but without malice or if he or she causes death while acting with disregard for human life. The Judicial Council of California Criminal Jury Instructions CALCRIM 572 instructs that, in such a case, the state must prove:
The state may also prove manslaughter by showing:
Voluntary Manslaughter: Imperfect Self-defense or Defense of Another
A person may be guilty of voluntary manslaughter rather than murder if he or she successfully asserts a claim of “imperfect” self-defense or defense of another. A person who kills another person in justifiable self-defense or in the defense of another has committed no crime. However, for self-defense or defense of another to be a “complete” or perfect defense, the person committing the killing must actually believe (1) that he or she or another person was in imminent danger of being killed or suffering great bodily injury and (2) that the immediate use of deadly force was necessary to defend against the danger. Such beliefs must be objectively reasonable; that is, they must be beliefs that a reasonable person in the defendant’s position would have held.
If either of the two beliefs described above is, although sincerely held, objectively unreasonable, then a defendant may have an “imperfect” claim of self-defense or defense of another. Such a claim may reduce a charge of murder to voluntary manslaughter. Imperfect self-defense with no intent to kill is still voluntary, not involuntary, manslaughter.
In evaluating the reasonableness of the defendant’s beliefs, a jury considers all the circumstances as they were known and appeared to the defendant at the time of the killing as well as the defendant’s history and background. Evidence relating to battered woman’s syndrome may be considered by the jury when deciding if the defendant actually feared the batterer and if that fear was reasonable. A belief in the necessity to defend may be the product of intoxication, delusion, or simply mistaken perception and still be an honestly held subjective belief, even if it is not a reasonably held belief.
Imperfect self-defense does not apply when a person, through his or her own wrongful conduct, created the circumstances that provoked the victim to use force; however, the victim must have been lawfully justified in using force that was deadly or could cause great bodily injury in reaction to the defendant’s wrongful conduct.
Penalties for Manslaughter
A person who commits voluntary manslaughter commits a felony and incurs a “strike” under California’s three-strike rule. The sentence for voluntary manslaughter is imprisonment in the state prison for three (3), six (6), or eleven (11) years.
The second kind of manslaughter recognized in California is involuntary manslaughter. California PC 192(b) defines involuntary manslaughter as the unintentional killing of someone “in 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.”
The wording of the statute and its interpretation are complicated. As PC 192(b) has been applied, an “unlawful act not amounting to a felony” includes minor law infractions, misdemeanors, and, despite the express language of the statute, felonies that are not inherently dangerous felonies. A killing resulting from a lawful act is considered manslaughter if the act was one “which might produce death” and was committed in an unlawful manner. A lawful act committed “without due caution and circumspection” that unintentionally causes a death can also be involuntary manslaughter.
Two key elements must exist for a person to be charged with involuntary manslaughter: (1) the person must have unintentionally caused a death and (2) the person must have acted with criminal negligence. How the person caused the death is also relevant. Instruction 581 of the Judicial Council of California Criminal Jury Instructions provides guidance on what is necessary to prove involuntary manslaughter. Under that Instruction, the state must show:
Causing a death while committing a crime other than an inherently violent felony is straightforward, but the reference to a “lawful act committed in an unlawful manner” is more complicated. Committing a lawful act in an unlawful manner means committing the act with negligence; that is, without reasonable caution and care. However, the jury instruction also requires the prosecutor to prove criminal negligence, which would subsume reasonable care and caution. However, they remain separate standards.
Criminal negligence is more than ordinary carelessness, inattention, or mistake in judgment. When the way a person acts is so different from the way an ordinarily careful person would have acted in the same situation, his or her conduct amounts to disregard for human life or indifference to the consequences of that conduct, and the person is said to have acted with criminal negligence.
Special notes: If a person unintentionally causes another person’s death with a vehicle, that conduct constitutes vehicular manslaughter (below), not involuntary manslaughter. Additionally, a person who commits an unintentional killing without malice during the commission of an assault or battery, even though those offenses may be “inherently dangerous felonies,” can be convicted of involuntary manslaughter.
Involuntary manslaughter can also occur if a person’s failure to act causes a death. A person with a legal duty to care for another person commits involuntary manslaughter if the person’s failure to perform that legal duty causes the other person’s death. For this type of involuntary manslaughter, the prosecutor must prove that:
“Criminal negligence” for this type of involuntary manslaughter requires showing that:
For purposes of involuntary manslaughter, a failure to act “causes” death if the death is the direct, natural, and probable consequence of the failure to act and the death would not have happened without the failure. A natural and probable consequence is one that a reasonable person would know is likely to happen if nothing intervenes. There may be more than one cause of death. A failure to act causes death within the meaning of involuntary manslaughter if it is a “substantial factor” in causing the death.
A person convicted of involuntary manslaughter can be sentenced to two (2), three (3), or four (4) years in a county jail or state prison. Involuntary manslaughter does not count as a “strike” for purposes of California’s three-strike rule.
Vehicular Manslaughter and Gross Vehicular Manslaughter
Vehicular manslaughter is defined by California statute as the unlawful killing of another without malice when the killing is accomplished with a vehicle. The statute does not distinguish between voluntary and involuntary vehicular manslaughter.
There are several categories of vehicular manslaughter in California:
Thus, vehicular manslaughter under the statute encompasses (1) killing another person while driving a vehicle in the commission of an unlawful act other than a felony; (2) killing another person while driving a vehicle in a manner that might produce death; and (3) killing another person when the accident or collision was for financial gain or as part of a scheme to present a false or fraudulent claim. Except for the third category, whether the person acted with gross negligence or only ordinary negligence changes the penalties that may be imposed for vehicular manslaughter.
As in involuntary manslaughter, the commission of a lawful act “in an unlawful manner” means committing an act that is lawful but committed with negligence; that is, without reasonable caution and care. If a person kills another with a vehicle but does not act with gross negligence, he or she may still be guilty of misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter if he or she acted with ordinary negligence.
A charge of vehicular manslaughter implies that no malice existed. If a driver acts with malice or exhibits wantonness and a conscious disregard for life to support a finding of implied malice in the killing of another person, he or she may be charged with murder.
If a person commits vehicular manslaughter with only ordinary negligence, the offense is a misdemeanor and is punishable by up to one (1) year in the county jail.
If a person commits vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence, the offense is a “wobbler” offense and may be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony. If it is charged as a misdemeanor, the offense is punishable by imprisonment in the county jail for not more than one (1) year. If the offense is charged as a felony, the penalty is imprisonment in the state prison for two (2), four (4), or six (6) years. The offender’s license will be revoked for at least three years. If the person is charged with and convicted of a felony, the conviction counts as a “strike” under California’s three-strike rule.
If a person commits vehicular manslaughter and the collision or accident was caused for financial gain or for the purpose of presenting any false or fraudulent claim, then the offense is a felony, and the penalty is imprisonment in the state prison for four (4), six (6), or ten (10) years. The person will also lose his or her license for at least three years. Manslaughter for financial gain is a “strike” under California’s three-strike rule.
Vehicular Manslaughter While Intoxicated
Vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated is, like vehicular manslaughter, of two kinds: ordinary vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated and gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated.
Vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated means killing someone without malice or gross negligence while driving a vehicle when:
To show that the unlawful act caused the death of another person, the state must show that the act was a “substantial factor” in the person’s death. More than one cause of death may exist.
Gross Vehicular Manslaughter While Intoxicated
Gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated means killing someone with a vehicle without malice aforethought but with gross negligence, when:
As with vehicular manslaughter, the unlawful act must have caused the death of another person, and the state has to show that the act was a “substantial factor” in the person’s death. More than one cause of death may exist.
If an intoxicated driver kills another person during the commission of a felony, that person may be charged with murder rather than vehicular manslaughter.
The penalty for vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, a “wobbler” offense, depends on whether it is charged as a misdemeanor or a felony. If charged as a misdemeanor, the penalty is imprisonment in a county jail for not more than one (1) year. If charged as a felony, the penalty is imprisonment for sixteen (16) months or two (2) or four (4) years.
Gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated is punishable by imprisonment in the state prison for four (4), six (6), or ten (10) years.
Felony vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated and gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated count as “strikes” under California’s three-strike rule.