Definition and Elements

Mayhem is defined by California Penal Code 203, which states:

Every person who unlawfully and maliciously deprives a human being of a member of his body, or disables, disfigures, or renders it useless, or cuts or disables the tongue, or puts out an eye, or slits the nose, ear, or lip, is guilty of mayhem.

To prove mayhem, the state must show the following:

The defendant unlawfully and maliciously:

  • removed a part of someone’s body,
  • disabled or made useless a part of someone’s body and the disability was more than slight or temporary,
  • disfigured someone,
  • cut or disabled someone’s tongue,
  • slit someone’s nose, ear, or lip, OR
  • put out someone’s eye or injured someone’s eye in a way that so significantly reduced his or her ability to see that the eye was useless for the purpose of ordinary sight.

Mayhem is a general intent crime in California, which means that the person charged with mayhem need not have intended to disable or disfigure the victim; all that is required is that the defendant intended to commit an unlawful act and the result was a disfiguring or disabling injury.


To be convicted of mayhem, a person must act “maliciously” in disfiguring or disabling another person. Maliciousness in California criminal law means intentionally doing a wrongful act or acting with the unlawful intent to annoy or injure someone else. Acting “maliciously” is different from acting “intentionally,” which means that the person intended to cause the result of his or her wrongful act. If, for example, a person acts with the unlawful intent to cut someone with a knife and accidentally cuts off the victim’s finger, the person has acted maliciously because he or she acted unlawfully but did not intend to cut off a finger. That person is guilty of mayhem. If the same person cuts someone in the face with a knife intending to cause a permanent scar and the victim in fact sustains a permanent scar, that person acted intentionally (which is aggravated mayhem).

Maliciousness includes acting with the intent to injure someone as well as the intent to “annoy” someone else. Although annoying someone does not seem criminal, mayhem focuses on the result of an intentional, wrongful act. If a person acts with the intent to annoy another and causes a disabling or disfiguring injury, that person is guilty of mayhem. Maliciousness can be inferred from the circumstances of the crime.

Disabling or Disfiguring Injury

Mayhem requires that a person committing a wrongful act cause an injury that results in a disability or disfigurement. The person injured by mayhem need not have suffered a permanent disability. If the disabling injury is more than slight or temporary, the person who caused the injury is guilty of mayhem. An injury that is prolonged or significant is a disabling injury. Even if the disabling injury can be repaired by medical technology or otherwise, a person is still guilty of mayhem for causing the injury.

A disfiguring injury must be permanent to charge a person with mayhem. The fact that the disfigurement might be repaired by medical care does not mean that the injury is impermanent. Disfigurement that is hidden by clothing is still an injury covered by California’s mayhem statute.

  1. Definition and Elements
  2. Mayhem and Battery Resulting in Great Bodily Injury
  3. Penalty
  4. Defenses

Mayhem and Battery Resulting in Great Bodily Injury

Battery under California law is any willful and unlawful use of force or violence upon another. A person who commits battery that causes great bodily injury to the victim is punished more harshly than a person who commits simple battery. Such a battery is a separate crime from mayhem, meaning a person can be charged with both if the great bodily injury results in prolonged or permanent disability or disfigurement.

Mayhem and Felony Murder

Under California’s felony-murder laws, a person may be charged with first-degree murder if he or she kills someone while committing mayhem or attempted mayhem, even if the death was unintentional and accidental.

Mayhem and Torture

In California, torture is inflicting great bodily injury with the intent to cause cruel or extreme pain and suffering for the purpose of revenge, extortion, persuasion, or for any sadistic purpose. If the bodily injury inflicted is disabling or disfiguring, the torturer may also be charged with mayhem or aggravated mayhem.

  1. Definition and Elements
  2. Mayhem and Battery Resulting in Great Bodily Injury
  3. Penalty
  4. Defenses


Mayhem is a significant crime in California. It is punishable as follows:

  • Felony probation,
  • Two, four, or eight years in the California state prison, and/or
  • A fine of up to $10,000.

Injuring certain victims is subject to an additional one- or two-year enhancement of the felony sentence. A person will receive the enhanced sentence if he or she knows or should have known that the other person was:

  • sixty-five years of age or older,
  • thirteen years old or younger,
  • blind or deaf,
  • developmentally disabled, or
  • a paraplegic or quadriplegic.

Mayhem is a violent felony and is a strike for the purposes of California’s three-strike rule.

  1. Definition and Elements
  2. Mayhem and Battery Resulting in Great Bodily Injury
  3. Penalty
  4. Defenses


Several defenses to a charge of mayhem exist. These include:

  • Lack of malicious intent. If a person does not act with the intent to injure or annoy another, the charge of mayhem fails. The disabling or disfiguring injury may have been caused completely by accident, which is not punishable as mayhem, even if the person acted negligently.
  • Lack of a disabling or disfiguring injury. Even if a person causes serious harm to another, he or she cannot be charged with mayhem unless the injury is disabling or disfiguring. If the injury lasts only a short period of time or causes only a slight scar or mark, it is not disabling or disfiguring under California law and does not support a charge of mayhem.
  • Self-defense or defense of others. A person may lawfully injure an aggressor if he or she reasonably believes that he or she or another person is in imminent danger of great bodily harm from the other person, that he or she must use force to counter the attempt at bodily harm, and that he or she used no more harm than necessary to protect himself or herself or another. Even if the force used results in a disabling or disfiguring injury, the person cannot be convicted of mayhem.