California Involuntary Manslaughter Laws

Homicide, the unlawful killing of a human being, may result in a criminal charge of murder or manslaughter. California state laws include separate definitions for voluntary manslaughter, involuntary manslaughter, and vehicular manslaughter. Involuntary manslaughter most commonly refers to unintentional homicides that occur during the commission of non-felony crimes or reckless conduct during lawful activities. In California, vehicular homicide and involuntary manslaughter are separate crimes with distinct definitions and punishments.

Homicide, Murder, Manslaughter Distinctions

Homicide during the commission of a felony often results in a murder charge rather than a manslaughter charge. When a killing occurred during the commission of a crime that is not a felony, the prosecutor must prove that the defendant had a criminal intent to commit the underlying unlawful act. If the defendant did not intend to engage in the crime that resulted in homicide, the state may be unable to prove involuntary manslaughter. The defendant may be able to establish a lack of intent by showing a reasonable mistake or lack of knowledge.

An involuntary manslaughter can also happen during lawful activities that occur recklessly, carelessly, or unreasonably. A prosecutor might prosecute a defendant for a homicide that occurred due to the defendant's careless behavior related to what would otherwise be a lawful activity.

Example: Michael Jackson's doctor was charged with involuntary manslaughter after the singer's death. The state based its criminal charges on the doctor's prescription of sedative drugs taken by Michael Jackson. Prescribing drugs is generally a lawful activity. To prove involuntary manslaughter, the state only needs to show that the doctor acted recklessly or carelessly; the state does not need to prove that the doctor intended to kill.

Overview of California Involuntary Manslaughter Laws

The following chart provides an overview of the California involuntary manslaughter laws, defenses, and potential penalties resulting from a conviction:

Statute California Penal Code Sections 187-199
Defenses

See Involuntary Manslaughter Defenses for more details.

Penalties and Sentences

California state laws include separate punishments for:

  • voluntary manslaughter,
  • involuntary manslaughter, and
  • vehicular manslaughter.

Involuntary manslaughter generally leads to a felony conviction which may be punished by a term of imprisonment for two, three, or four years in county jail or state prison. The state may consider the defendant's prior or current felony conviction record when determining the defendant's punishment.

See Involuntary Manslaughter Penalties and Sentencing for more general information.

Note: State laws are always subject to change through the passage of new legislation, rulings in the higher courts (including federal decisions), ballot initiatives, and other means. While we strive to provide the most current information available, please consult an attorney or conduct your own legal research to verify the state law(s) you are researching.

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There are very fine distinctions between murder, voluntary, and involuntary manslaughter that can make an enormous difference in the punishment meted out by the court. A lawyer can help you argue for reduced charges or help develop a defense to reduce or eliminate your liability. Contact a competent local attorney for a free initial evaluation to discuss the details of your individual case.

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