The crime of "Mayhem" in California law
Penal Code 203 & 205 P

Penal Code 203, California's mayhem law, punishes the crime of maliciously disfiguring or disabling another person's body (which is also referred to as "maiming").1 Unlike the related offenses of assault and battery, the crime of mayhem focuses on the nature of the alleged victim's injury...rather than the nature of the force that was used.

If you are convicted of this serious felony offense, the judge could potentially sentence you to life in prison, depending on (1) the extent of the injuries, and (2) if the victim falls under a specific class of protected persons.

But we're here to help. As former prosecutors and law enforcement officers, we have the insider knowledge essential to defending you against California criminal mayhem charges.

In an effort to help you understand Penal Code 203 "mayhem", our Los Angeles criminal defense attorneys2 will address the following:

(Click on a title to proceed directly to that section)

1. How Does the Prosecutor Prove that I am
Guilty of Mayhem?
2. What are the Defenses to a Mayhem Charge?
3. Penalties, Punishment, and Sentencing for
Mayhem Crimes

If, after reading this article, you would like more information, we invite you to contact us at Shouse Law Group.

You may find further helpful information in our related articles on Penal Code 242 Battery, Penal Code 240 Assault, Penal Code 206 PC Torture, "Accident" as a California Legal Defense, California's Self-Defense Laws, and California's Felony-Murder Rule.

We also invite you to join the Shouse Law Group Facebook fan page and follow us on Twitter to receive regular updates and commentary on California criminal law issues.

1. How Does the Prosecutor Prove that I am
Guilty of Violating California's Mayhem Law?

Mayhem is a crime that is committed under very specific circumstances. Penal Code 203 PC reads in its entirety:

"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."3

In order to convict you of this offense, the prosecutor must prove three facts (otherwise known as "elements" of the crime):

  1. that you unlawfully used physical force on another person,
  2. that the force resulted in one of the above listed injuries, and
  3. that you maliciously inflicted that force.4

Let's take a closer look at some of these terms to gain a better understanding of their meanings.

"Disables"

All "disabilities" are not necessarily synonymous with mayhem. In order for you to be convicted of mayhem for "disabling" a member of a person's body, you must do more than slightly or temporarily disable that body part.5

Example: Defendant somehow broke the victim's ankle during the course of raping her. The California Court of Appeal ruled that because the victim's broken ankle took over six months to heal, it qualified as a sufficient "disability" under Penal Code 203 PC.6

"Disfigures"

Disfigurement constitutes mayhem only when the injury is permanent. However, the question of whether an injury is permanent must be answered separate and apart from whether doctors can perform reconstructive surgery to improve or repair the injury.7

Example: A cut on the lip that requires stitches, but that would ultimately heal on its own without serious scaring does not qualify as a permanent injury. However, biting off part of the lip does. The fact that surgeons could possibly reattach the lip doesn't relieve the person who bit it of his/her criminal liability for mayhem.

California courts have held that
  • burn scars,
  • blindness that is "probably" permanent, and
  • "forced" tattoos
are all examples of permanent disfigurement.8

"Maliciously"

If you act maliciously, it means that you act with unlawful intent to injure or annoy another person.

"Puts an eye out"

"Puts an eye out" doesn't necessarily mean that the victim's eye must fall out of the socket (although it could). It also refers to situations where the eye is rendered useless or is injured to the extent that it doesn't function as it once did.9

2. What are the Defenses to a Mayhem Charge?

There are a variety of California legal defenses that.depending on the circumstances.may apply to a mayhem allegation. Some of the most common include:

Accident

"Accident" serves as a valid legal defense to most California crimes. If you didn't maliciously intend to disfigure, disable, or injure the alleged victim in one of the other ways that violates California Penal Code 203 PC.but instead, you accidentally did so.you aren't guilty of mayhem.


Example: Mary is having a heated argument with her husband as she's cooking dinner. As she's chopping vegetables, she gestures to him and loses her grip on the knife. As it falls, it severs one of his toes.

Despite the fact that they were arguing, she didn't maliciously intend to injure him. The knife slipping out of her hand was purely an accident. His injury was the result of misfortune, not a willful act. Given these circumstances, Mary isn't guilty of mayhem.

Self-defense / defense of others

If you only commit mayhem because you were in the process of reasonably defending yourself or another person, California criminal law excuses your act of self-defense.

Example: Rick attacks Sue and forces her to have sex with him in violation of Penal Code 261, California's rape law. While trying to defend and free herself, Sue bites a hole in Rick's bottom lip and scratches his eyes, causing partial blindness.

Even though she intended the harm, she only acted in self-defense. Given these facts, California's rules of self-defense should excuse her conduct.

But as Long Beach criminal defense attorney John Murray explains10, "If you have an honest but mistaken belief that you need to defend yourself.and maim someone in the process.California self-defense law will not excuse your act. This is commonly referred to as "imperfect" self-defense and.although this defense is applicable to many crimes.it is not applicable to California's mayhem laws."11

Example: Paul hears from others that Mike is going to kill him. When Paul sees Mike, he decides to "beat him to the punch", despite the fact that Mike is unarmed. Paul severely beats Mike; he even kicks him in the eye with construction boots that causes him permanent blindness. As a result, Paul is convicted of mayhem.

Lesser included offenses

Unfortunately, sometimes the evidence clearly supports a conviction. Even when this is the case, your California criminal defense lawyer may be able to convince the prosecutor, judge, and/or jury that.even though you may be guilty.you are guilty of a crime less serious than mayhem.

There are two less serious offenses that are necessarily included in mayhem: (1) assault, and (2) battery.

A California Penal Code 240 PC "assault" takes place when you attempt to commit a violent injury on another person.12 A Penal Code 242 PC "battery" takes place when you willfully inflict force or violence upon another person.13 It therefore follows that if you are guilty of intentionally maiming another person, you are also guilty of violating California's assault and battery laws.

A guilty plea or conviction for either of these offenses in lieu of a mayhem conviction will likely subject you to (1) a reduced charge (a misdemeanor instead of a felony), (2) a reduced sentence, and (3) less of a stigma when the charge appears on your criminal record.

3. Penalties, Punishment, and Sentencing for
Mayhem Crimes

Penal Code 203 is a felony. If convicted of mayhem, you face

  • Formal probation,
  • two, four, or eight years in the California State Prison, (or a life sentence--but with the possibility of California parole--if you are convicted of aggravated mayhem, discussed below)
  • a maximum fine of $10,000.14

Sentencing enhancements

There are two sentencing enhancements that apply directly to a California mayhem conviction. If the judge imposes either or both of them, you could face an additional and consecutive one to eight years in prison.

The first has to do with the victim. If the victim is

  • under 14,
  • 65 years or older,
  • blind, deaf, or developmentally disabled, or
  • a paraplegic or quadriplegic,

you face an additional one or two year enhancement for each violation.15

The second has to do with the extent of the injury. If the victim suffers great bodily harm, California's "great bodily injury" sentencing enhancement subjects you to a three to six year enhancement.16

On that note, if you inflicted great bodily injury on the victim.and the prosecutor can prove that you did so with the specific intent to cause cruel or unusual pain.he/she will likely additionally charge you with violating Penal Code 206 PC, California's torture law.17

If convicted of torture, the penalty is imprisonment in the state prison for life.18

Penal Code 205 PC -- Aggravated Mayhem

"Aggravated" mayhem is punished under California Penal Code 205 PC. You are guilty of aggravated mayhem if you maim someone and exhibit an extreme or reckless disregard for the physical or psychological well-being of the victim.

Example: Defendant was convicted of aggravated mayhem under California Penal Code 205 PC when he repeatedly slashed the victim's face while holding him down.19

Mayhem that results in death

If the evidence demonstrates that you had the specific intent to commit mayhem.and the alleged victim is intentionally, unintentionally or even accidentally killed as a result of your acts, California's felony-murder rule makes you subject to first-degree murder liability.20

This is the case even if your attempt to commit mayhem is thwarted, as long as there is sufficient evidence to prove your intent.21 Depending on the circumstances, a California Penal Code 187 PC first-degree murder conviction subjects you to

  • the death penalty,
  • life in prison without the possibility of parole, or
  • 25 years to life in the state prison.22
Call us for help.

As you can see, mayhem allegations are extremely serious. Nonetheless, many innocent people get wrongfully accused of this crime. And overzealous prosecutors are known to file mayhem charges when the evidence really doesn't support it.

But we're here to help.

For more information about California's mayhem laws, or to discuss your case confidentially with one of our criminal defense attorneys, please don't hesitate to contact us at Shouse Law Group.

Our California criminal law offices are located in and around Los Angeles, Orange County, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura, San Jose, Oakland, the San Francisco Bay area, and several nearby cities.

Additionally, our Nevada criminal defense attorneys represent clients accused of violating Nevada's mayhem laws. For more information, we invite you to contact our local attorneys at one of our Nevada law offices, located in Reno and Las Vegas. For information about Nevada Mayhem Laws, go to our informational article on Nevada Mayhem Laws.23

Legal References:

1California Penal Code 203 PC -- Mayhem. ("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.")

2Our Los Angeles criminal defense attorneys have local law offices in Beverly Hills, Burbank, Glendale, Lancaster, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Pasadena, Pomona, Torrance, Van Nuys, West Covina, and Whittier.

3 California Penal Code 203 PC - Mayhem.

4People v. Ausbie (2004) 123 Cal.App.4th 855, 861 (overruled on other grounds). ("The offense [of California Penal Code 203 PC mayhem] includes three elements: (1) an unlawful act by means of physical force; (2) resulting in an injury which "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 ...;" and (3) done "maliciously," defined as "an unlawful intent to vex, annoy, or injure another person.")

See also California Jury Instructions -- Criminal. CALJIC 9.30 -- Mayhem. ("In order to prove this crime, each of the following elements must be proved: [1] One person unlawfully and by means of physical force [deprived a human being of a member of [his] [her] body or, disabled, permanently disfigured, or rendered it useless;] [or] [ of a human being;] and [2] The person who committed the act causing the bodily harm, did so maliciously, that is, with an unlawful intent to vex, annoy, or injure another person.")

5People v. Thomas (1979) 96 Cal.App.3d 507, 512 (overruled on other grounds). ("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." (Emphasis added.) Here, as we have pointed out above, the victim's ankle was disabled seriously and that disability continued for over six months. Assuming that some slight and temporary disability would not arise to the level of mayhem, the disability here was sufficiently disabling, for an extended period of time to amount to mayhem.")

6See same.

7People v. Hill (1994) 23 Cal.App.4th 1566, 1574. (".if evidence of medical alleviation were permitted to be used as appellant suggests, culpability might vary depending on the quality of the medical care available to the victim. It would thus be possible for two individuals to receive inconsistent verdicts and punishments for the very same acts simply because the victim of one could obtain superior medical care. We decline appellant's invitation to endorse such a result and consequently reject his contention that evidence of medical alleviation may be used in a mayhem trial to prove an injury, permanent by its nature, may be corrected by medical procedures. Our decision is premised on the belief that, in a prosecution for mayhem, the word "permanent" can no longer be applied in its literal sense since medical technology is increasingly capable of effective cosmetic repair of injuries that would otherwise be permanently disfiguring. Advances in medical technology do not, however, in any way diminish the culpability of one who intentionally disfigures another.")

8See same at 1573. ("In each of the cases relied upon by appellant the medical evidence was used to establish an injury was permanent, and thus would support a conviction for mayhem. ( People v. McKelvy (1987) 194 Cal.App.3d 694, 698, 239 Cal.Rptr. 782, [blindness "probably" permanent]; People v. Nunes (1920) 47 Cal.App. 346, 350, 190 P. 486 [chance of curing blindness "practically nil"]; People v. Dennis (1985) 169 Cal.App.3d 1135, 1138, 215 Cal.Rptr. 750 [eye injury permanent]; People v. Page (1980) 104 Cal.App.3d 569, 577, 163 Cal.Rptr. 839 [permanent tattoo].)")

9People v. Dennis (1985) 169 Cal.App.3d 1135, 1138. ("Mayhem is committed when the inflicted injury not only completely destroys the victim's eyesight (People v. McWilliams (1948) 87 Cal.App.2d 550, 197 P.2d 216), but also when it causes impairment less than total blindness.")

See also CALJIC 9.31 -- The meaning of "puts an eye out". ("The phrase "puts out an eye" means that an eye is entirely removed, rendered entirely useless or injured to the extent that its possessor cannot use it for the ordinary and usual purposes of life.")

10Long Beach criminal defense attorney John Murray represents clients facing violent felony charges throughout the South Bay and Orange County.

11People v. Hayes (2004) 120 Cal.App.4th 796, 801. ("In Flannel the court held that it is a partial defense to a charge of murder that the defendant killed the victim while under the honest but mistaken belief that his conduct was necessary in self-defense. The basic rationale of the doctrine is that a genuine belief in the need to defend oneself, even if unreasonable, negates the "malice aforethought" which is required for a conviction of murder. ( Flannel, supra, 25 Cal.3d at pp. 679-680, 160 Cal.Rptr. 84, 603 P.2d 1.) While this doctrine is now well established with respect to murder charges (see People v. Blakeley (2000) 23 Cal.4th 82, 87-88, 96 Cal.Rptr.2d 451, 999 P.2d 675; CALJIC No. 5.17), it has been extended to few other offenses, and in particular has not been extended to mayhem.")

12California Penal Code 240 PC -- Assault. ("An assault is an unlawful attempt, coupled with a present ability, to commit a violent injury on the person of another.")

13California Penal Code 242 PC -- Battery. ("A battery is any willful and unlawful use of force or violence upon the person of another.")

14California Penal Code 204 -- Mayhem; punishment. ("Mayhem is punishable by imprisonment in the state prison for two, four, or eight years.")

See also California Penal Code 672 -- Offenses for which no fine prescribed; fine authorized in addition to imprisonment. ("Upon a conviction for any crime punishable by imprisonment in any jail or prison, in relation to which no fine is herein prescribed, the court may impose a fine on the offender not exceeding one thousand dollars ($1,000) in cases of misdemeanors or ten thousand dollars ($10,000) in cases of felonies, in addition to the imprisonment prescribed.")

15California Penal Code 667.9 PC -- Conviction of certain crimes against persons 65 years of age or older, blind, deaf, developmentally disabled, paraplegic, quadriplegic, or under the age of 14 years; prior conviction; sentence enhancements. ("(a) Any person who commits one or more of the crimes specified in subdivision (c) against a person who is 65 years of age or older, or against a person who is blind, deaf, developmentally disabled, a paraplegic, or a quadriplegic, or against a person who is under the age of 14 years, and that disability or condition is known or reasonably should be known to the person committing the crime, shall receive a one-year enhancement for each violation. (b) Any person who commits a violation of subdivision (a) and who has a prior conviction for any of the offenses specified in subdivision (c), shall receive a two-year enhancement for each violation in addition to the sentence provided under Section 667. (c) Subdivisions (a) and (b) apply to the following crimes: (1) Mayhem, in violation of Section 203 or 205..")

16California Penal Code 12022.7 PC -- 12022.7. Terms of imprisonment for persons inflicting great bodily injury while committing or attempting felony. ("(a) Any person who personally inflicts great bodily injury on any person other than an accomplice in the commission of a felony or attempted felony shall be punished by an additional and consecutive term of imprisonment in the state prison for three years. (b) Any person who personally inflicts great bodily injury on any person other than an accomplice in the commission of a felony or attempted felony which causes the victim to become comatose due to brain injury or to suffer paralysis of a permanent nature, shall be punished by an additional and consecutive term of imprisonment in the state prison for five years. As used in this subdivision, "paralysis" means a major or complete loss of motor function resulting from injury to the nervous system or to a muscular mechanism. (c) Any person who personally inflicts great bodily injury on a person who is 70 years of age or older, other than an accomplice, in the commission of a felony or attempted felony shall be punished by an additional and consecutive term of imprisonment in the state prison for five years. (d) Any person who personally inflicts great bodily injury on a child under the age of five years in the commission of a felony or attempted felony shall be punished by an additional and consecutive term of imprisonment in the state prison for four, five, or six years. (e) Any person who personally inflicts great bodily injury under circumstances involving domestic violence in the commission of a felony or attempted felony shall be punished by an additional and consecutive term of imprisonment in the state prison for three, four, or five years. As used in this subdivision, "domestic violence" has the meaning provided in subdivision (b) of Section 13700. (f) As used in this section, "great bodily injury" means a significant or substantial physical injury.")

17California Penal Code 206 PC -- Torture. ("Every person who, with the intent to cause cruel or extreme pain and suffering for the purpose of revenge, extortion, persuasion, or for any sadistic purpose, inflicts great bodily injury as defined in Section 12022.7 upon the person of another, is guilty of torture.")

18California Penal Code 206.1 -- Torture; punishment. ("Torture is punishable by imprisonment in the state prison for a term of life.")

19People v. Szadziewicz (2008) 161 Cal.App.4th 823, 831. ("Szadziewicz inflicted all of the cuts to Rossmeisl's face while Rossmeisl was still on the bed, leaving the mattress soaked with blood. These facial cuts were numerous and severe. The overlapping cuts from the temple to nose and back toward the ear were especially nasty. They covered prominent and very visible parts of the face and were deep enough to damage the nerves and cause paralysis. The placement and nature of these and the other facial lacerations amply supported a reasonable inference that Szadziewicz meant to disfigure Rossmeisl's face [and is therefore guilty of California Penal Code 205 PC aggravated mayhem].")

See also People v. Quintero (2006) 135 Cal.App.4th 1152, 1163. ("Here, Quintero focused his initial attack on a particularly vulnerable portion of Barajas's body, his head, using deliberate uppercut motions to slash his face many times with a retractable bladed knife. This action gave his blows more force and thus the greater ability to inflict serious injury than if he had merely jabbed or stabbed at Barajas's face. He held Barajas by the hair as he cut at his right cheek and then turned him around by the hair to attack his face full on. The injuries to Barajas's arms and hands were caused by Barajas's attempts to protect and cover his face. Quintero stopped his attack once he had severely maimed Barajas's face. From these facts, a jury could reasonably conclude that Quintero essentially limited his attack to Barajas's face rather than indiscriminately attacking him, and find that the attack was guided by the specific intent of inflicting serious injury upon Barajas's face and head [which is sufficient evidence for a conviction under California Penal Code 205 aggravated mayhem].")

20California Penal Code 189 -- California's felony-murder rule. ("All murder which is perpetrated by means of a destructive device or explosive, a weapon of mass destruction, knowing use of ammunition designed primarily to penetrate metal or armor, poison, lying in wait, torture, or by any other kind of willful, deliberate, and premeditated killing, or which is committed in the perpetration of, or attempt to perpetrate, arson, rape, carjacking, robbery, burglary, mayhem, kidnapping, train wrecking, or any act punishable under Section 206, 286, 288, 288a, or 289, or any murder which is perpetrated by means of discharging a firearm from a motor vehicle, intentionally at another person outside of the vehicle with the intent to inflict death, is murder of the first degree. All other kinds of murders are of the second degree.")

21See same.

22California Penal Code 190 -- Murder; punishment. ("(a) Every person guilty of murder in the first degree shall be punished by death, imprisonment in the state prison for life without the possibility of parole, or imprisonment in the state prison for a term of 25 years to life.")

23Please feel free to contact our Nevada criminal defense attorneys Michael Becker and Mike Castillo for any questions relating to Nevada's criminal laws. Their Nevada law offices are located in Reno and Las Vegas.

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