In California, Involuntary manslaughter is when one person kills another unintentionally, either
- while committing a crime that is not an inherently dangerous California felony OR
- while committing a lawful act which produces a foreseeable death.
The most important part of California’s involuntary manslaughter law, California Penal Code 192(b), is that it does not require intent to kill. This is in contrast to the crime of murder under Penal Code 187 which requires “malice aforethought.”
Note that California's involuntary manslaughter law does not include killing someone with a car. That is a separate crime of vehicular manslaughter.
Here are some examples of behavior that could lead to involuntary manslaughter charges in California:
- A man steals a car, and as he is driving the car, he runs over a pedestrian and kills him.
- To intimidate his girlfriend, a man brandishes a loaded gun at her. He accidentally shoots and kills her.
- A factory owner forces his workers to work without any air or air conditioning during a heat wave. One of his workers dies of dehydration.
WHAT MUST THE PROSECUTOR PROVE
In order to prove you guilty of involuntary manslaughter, the prosecutor must prove the following elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt:
- That you committed a California infraction, a California misdemeanor, or a California crime that is not an inherently dangerous felony, OR a lawful act done in an unlawful way;
- That you committed the crime or act with “criminal negligence”; and
- That your actions caused the death of another human being.
Let’s take a closer look at the elements.
“California crime or lawful act in an unlawful manner”
Penal Code 192(b) PC, California’s involuntary manslaughter law, requires that a defendant committed a wrongful act such as:
- A California infraction (a low-level crime like a traffic violation or disturbing the peace that is only punishable by a fine)
- A California misdemeanor;
- A California felony that is not classified as “inherently dangerous”; or
- An act that is not a crime—but is done in an unlawful manner.
Note: a death resulting from committing a felony that is “inherently dangerous” will be charged as murder under California’s felony-murder rule. For example, Jack impersonates a medical doctor and prescribes painkillers to Joe. The painkillers interact negatively with some of the other drugs that Joe had been consuming and ultimately kill Joe. Jack engaged in the unlawful practice of medicine, which is not an inherently dangerous felony. Jack is therefore guilty of involuntary manslaughter and not felony murder. But suppose that Jack kills Joe while Jack is trying to rob Joe at knife point. Because robbery carried out by a dangerous weapon is considered an inherently dangerous felony, Jack is guilty of felony murder in this scenario.
Criminal negligence is more than just ordinary carelessness, mistake, or not paying attention. Criminal negligence means:
- A person acts in a reckless way that creates a high risk of death or great bodily injury; and
- A reasonable person would have known that acting in that way would create such a risk.
For example, Jill leaves her two-year child in the car while she runs inside the house to retrieve her purse. Before she returns to the vehicle, another car strikes Jill’s car, instantly killing her infant child. Jill is not guilty of manslaughter because she was not criminally negligent. She could not have reasonably foreseen that a vehicle would strike her parked car. Now assume that, on a hot day, Jill leaves her child in the car with the windows rolled up. After a few hours, the child dies of dehydration. In this instance, Jill acted recklessly, as a reasonable person would have known that leaving a child for hours in a car on a hot day would create the risk of great bodily harm to the child.
“Caused another person's death”
An act is considered to have “caused” another person's death if the death was the
- natural, and
consequence of the act – AND the death would not have occurred without the act. Penal Code 192(b) PC requires that a reasonable person would have realized that the death was likely to happen.
For example, during a children’s birthday party hosted by Jill, one of the children eats peanuts and has an extreme allergic reaction. The child dies two days later. His parents knew of the allergic reaction and did not take him to the doctor. Jill, who hosted the party, is not guilty of involuntary manslaughter because her action of providing peanuts at the party was not the probable and foreseeable cause of the child’s death.
Involuntary manslaughter based failure to perform a legal duty
If a judge determines that a defendant had a legal duty to someone else, the defendant may be charged with involuntary manslaughter based on failure to perform a legal duty. For this type of involuntary manslaughter, the prosecutor must prove that:
- The defendant had a legal duty to the victim;
- The defendant failed to perform that legal duty;
- The failure was criminally negligent; and
- The failure to perform the duty caused the victim's death
Examples of relationships that give rise to a legal duty are:
- The parent-child relationship;
- A paid caretaker's relationship with the person s/he is caring for; and
- The relationship between two people, one of whom has “assumed responsibility” for the other.
For example, Jill brings home a homeless man to feed him and give him shelter for the night. In the course of the evening, the homeless man has a stroke. Jill does not call 911. Instead, she drags the homeless man to her backyard and leaves him there, knowing that he is still alive. The homeless man dies after a few hours. Because Jill brought the homeless man to her home and provided him with shelter, she owed him the legal duty of calling for help. Her failure to perform this duty caused the man to die. Jill is therefore guilty of involuntary manslaughter.
PENALTIES FOR VIOLATING PENAL CODE SECTION 192(B) INVOLUNTARY MANSLAUGHTER
PC 192(b) involuntary manslaughter is a California felony. Potential penalties include:
- Felony Probation
- Two (2), three (3) or four (4) years in jail; and
- A fine of up to ten thousand dollars ($10,000).20
If a defendant is found guilty of involuntary manslaughter and the death was caused by a firearm or another “dangerous or deadly weapon,” the conviction will be a “strike” under California’s Three Strikes law.
Involuntary manslaughter can also lead to a civil lawsuit by the family of the victim, who can seek substantial civil judgments against the defendant.
LEGAL DEFENSES TO INVOLUNTARY MANSLAUGHTER
Below are some common defenses to a charge of involuntary manslaughter:
Self-defense or defense of others.
This may be a successful defense when all of the following are true:
- The defendant believed that himself or someone else was in imminent danger of being killed, raped, maimed, or robbed;
- The defendant reasonably believed that the immediate use of deadly force was necessary to defend against that danger; and
- The defendant used no more force than was reasonably necessary to defend against that danger.
If the defendant was not engaged in any wrongdoing or “criminal negligence,” then an accident defense is possible.
The accident defense requires that the defendant
- had no criminal intent to do harm;
- was not acting with criminal negligence at the time of the accidental killing, and
- was otherwise engaged in lawful activity at the time of the accident.
The police sometimes have what is called a “tunnel vision”—that is, they focus on a few leads at the exclusion of other clues and evidence. This can lead to incomplete investigation and thus a hasty and snap judgment by the police and prosecution. If the proof against you is not beyond a reasonable doubt, then the prosecutor cannot and should not attempt to prove a case against you beyond a reasonable doubt.
HOW THE LOS ANGELES CRIMINAL ATTORNEYS CAN HELP YOU
Negin Yamini takes no part of a police report at face value. She conducts her own independent investigations, consults with independent forensic experts, and thoroughly reexamines the evidence to rigorously and aggressively defend your case.