California law recognizes three types of manslaughter: voluntary, involuntary, and vehicular manslaughter. California law on manslaughter is contained in the California Penal Code Sections 191.5 and 192.

What is a California Manslaughter?

The California penal code defines manslaughter as “the unlawful killing of a human being without malice.”

California voluntary manslaughter is defined as the killing of another person in the heat of passion or in the midst of a sudden quarrel without “malice aforethought.” Malice aforethought is present when there is:

  • An intent to kill another, or
  • The defendant acts with reckless disregard for human life.

However, there is a presumption of no malice aforethought when a killing occurs during a sudden quarrel or in the heat of passion. The classic example is a man finding his wife in bed with another man. If he kills either of them, it was likely in the heat of passion and will be ruled voluntary manslaughter.

California involuntary manslaughter is the killing of another person:

  • While committing an unlawful act that does not amount to a felony, or
  • While committing a lawful act that may produce death if performed without due caution.

The unlawful act can be either a misdemeanor or violation that does not necessarily have to be dangerous. It should be noted that involuntary manslaughter does not apply to actions taken while driving a vehicle.

California vehicular manslaughter involves several factors, including whether the driver was intoxicated or driving recklessly.

California Penal Code Section 192 (c) covers vehicular manslaughter not related to drugs or alcohol. Section 191.5 covers vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated. Under Section 192(c), where there are no drugs or alcohol involved, to convict a defendant of vehicular manslaughter, the prosecution must prove that the defendant:

  • Drove the vehicle in an unlawful manner,
  • Drove in a lawful manner but with recklessness, or
  • Willfully caused the accident for monetary gain.

To prove vehicular manslaughter while under the influence under Section 191.5, the prosecution must prove that the defendant:

  • Was driving while intoxicated,
  • In addition to driving intoxicated, the driver either negligently committed an unlawful act or recklessly committed a lawful but dangerous act, and
  • Another person died as a result. To prove gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, the prosecutor must additionally prove the driver acted with gross negligence.

California Manslaughter Penalties

If convicted of voluntary manslaughter, a defendant may be sentenced from three to ten years in state prison. It can also carry a fine of up to $10,000, a potential strike on their record under the California Three Strike Law, and the loss of the right to carry a firearm. Defendants can also be sentenced to community service and counseling.

If convicted of involuntary manslaughter, a defendant may be sentenced to up to one year in county jail with formal probation or up to four years in California state prison. It can also carry a fine of up to $10,000, the loss of the right to carry a firearm, and the loss of a professional license if you have one. Involuntary manslaughter can also prompt a wrongful death civil suit from the family of the victim.

Vehicular manslaughter under Section 192 (no drugs or alcohol involved) can be charged as either a felony or misdemeanor depending on the facts of the case and the defendant’s criminal record.

  • If convicted of misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter, the penalty is up to one year in county jail.
  • If convicted of felony vehicular manslaughter, the penalty is typically two to ten years in state prison.
  • If the driver was intoxicated under Section 191.5, the defendant can similarly be charged of a felony or misdemeanor.
  • If convicted of misdemeanor intoxicated vehicular manslaughter, the penalty is up to $1,000 in fines and up to one year in county jail.
  • If convicted of a felony, the defendant could face up to $10,000 in fines, four years in state prison, plus the possibility of an additional three to six-year sentence if there is a surviving victim who suffered from great bodily injury.
  • Under Section 191.5(a) gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated is a felony and carries a potential sentence of up to ten years in state prison or fifteen years to life if there is a prior 191.5 conviction or two prior DUI convictions.

Defenses to California Manslaughter

Self-defense or defense of others. California’s self-defense laws allow a person to kill another if they reasonably believe that it is necessary to prevent death or great bodily injury to himself or herself or another person.

Imperfect self-defense. This is similar to the above, but in this case, the use of force or belief of impending danger was not reasonable.

Insanity. To present insanity as a defense, the defendant must prove that he or she either:

  • Did not know the difference between right and wrong, or
  • Did not understand the nature of her actions.

Accident. If a person is killed by accident and the defendant was acting lawfully, was not negligent at the time of the accident, and had no intention to do harm, they cannot be found guilty of voluntary manslaughter.

Insufficient evidence. In many cases, there may not be sufficient evidence of whether the defendant caused the victim’s death or whether the defendant was acting negligently.

No intoxication. If there is no proof of intoxication, like the results of a breathalyzer test or witness testimony, the defendant can only be convicted under Section 191.5.