Under Penal Code 401 PC, California's aiding a suicide law, it is a felony in California to help someone else commit suicide, or advise or encourage them to commit suicide.1
According to Rancho Cucamonga criminal defense attorney Michael Scafiddi2:
“California lawmakers recently acknowledged that terminally-ill people should have the right to die by passing California's first physician-assisted suicide law . But according to Penal Code 401, people who are not doctors still may not help friends or family members who are in terrible pain die on their own terms—at least not without risking serious criminal penalties under California's ‘assisting a suicide' law.”
The legal definition of aiding a suicide
You violate California's “aiding a suicide” law when you deliberately do either of the following:
- Help someone commit suicide; or
- Advise or encourage someone to commit suicide.3
Example: Dennis is in his seventies. He finds out he has advanced brain cancer and, even with expensive and painful treatment, will only live for a year at most.
Dennis would prefer to die quickly and peacefully and so would like to kill himself. He tells his wife Julie this and asks for her advice. Julie says she would probably feel the same way and thinks that is the right decision.
At Dennis's request, Julie travels to several drugstores to purchase a lethal dose of sleeping pills. She is with Dennis when he takes all of the pills and drinks a large amount of alcohol to kill himself.
Julie is guilty of aiding or encouraging a suicide for two reasons: First, she encouraged Dennis to make the decision to commit suicide. Second, she helped him kill himself by purchasing the sleeping pills. And in both cases, she acted deliberately.
If you encourage someone to commit suicide or help him/her do so, and that person attempts suicide but doesn't actually succeed in killing him/herself—then you can still be charged with aiding a suicide as a California attempt crime.4
The difference between aiding a suicide and murder
California's suicide-assistance law applies only to defendants who help other people kill themselves. If someone asks you to kill them and you do so, then you are guilty instead of Penal Code 187 PC murder (or attempted murder if the “victim” does not die).5
The only exception to this rule is if you kill another person as part of a “suicide pact” and both of the following are true:
- The intention is that both you and the victim will die as part of the suicide pact; and
- There is a single means of death that creates an equal risk of dying for both people.6
In that case, if you survive and the other person does not, you are guilty only of aiding a suicide—not of murder.7
Example: Joseph and Tommy are teenage friends who have both decided they want to commit suicide. Tommy suggests that they drive Joseph's car over a dangerous cliff. They agree to do so, shaking hands to make it a deal.
Joseph drives the car over the cliff, with Tommy as a passenger. Tommy is killed—but Joseph survives with serious injuries.
Joseph is guilty of assisting a suicide for his role in Tommy's death, but he is NOT guilty of murder.8
Example: David and his wife Susan are both distraught after David loses a large amount of money gambling. David and Susan decide to commit suicide together.
The plan is for them to strangle each other with neckties, at the same time. David succeeds in strangling Susan. But Susan does not succeed in killing David, who only passes out.
David is guilty of murder for his role in Susan's death—not assisting a suicide. This is because the suicide pact involved them using two different instruments (two neckties) to kill one another and did not create an equal risk of dying for both of them.9
Penalties for violating California Penal Code 401
Aiding, advising or encouraging a suicide is a felony in California law.10
The potential penalties are:
- Felony (formal) probation;
- Sixteen (16) months, two (2) years or three (3) years in California state prison; and/or
- A fine of up to ten thousand dollars ($10,000).11
Legal defenses against charges of aiding a suicide
"Aiding a suicide" charges are always a devastating experience. Usually these charges come shortly after the death of a close friend or relative of the defendant.
Also, it is common for PC 401 charges to be brought against minors in juvenile court —because depression and suicide are common among teenagers, and many minors do not understand the legal implications of helping a friend commit suicide. In these cases, the life of an entire family—the defendant, his/her parents and siblings—can be turned upside down.
Our California criminal defense attorneys can help. In many cases, we find that an effective legal defense is that the defendant did not deliberately aid or encourage a suicide. (This is a version of the legal defense of accident.)
Perhaps you encouraged someone to commit suicide as part of what you believed was a theoretical discussion of whether suicide was wrong—and you did not actually think the other person was going to commit suicide. Or maybe you supplied someone with a gun or pills not knowing that they were going to use them to kill themselves.
Because California's law on aiding a suicide requires criminal intent, you are not guilty of that offense in these sorts of scenarios.12
Call us for help…
For questions about the crime of Penal Code 401 PC aiding, advising or encouraging a suicide, or to discuss your case confidentially with one of our California criminal defense attorneys, do not hesitate to contact us at Shouse Law Group.
We have local criminal law offices in and around Los Angeles, San Diego, Orange County, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura, San Jose, Oakland, the San Francisco Bay area, and several nearby cities.
1 Penal Code 401 PC – Suicide; aiding, advising, or encouraging. (“Every person who deliberately aids, or advises, or encourages another to commit suicide, is guilty of a felony.”)
2 Rancho Cucamonga criminal defense attorney Michael Scafiddi is a former Ontario police officer who now uses that inside knowledge to defend clients accused of serious felonies like aiding a suicide. He practices criminal defense law primarily in San Bernardino and Riverside Counties.
3 Penal Code 401 PC – Suicide; aiding, advising, or encouraging, endnote 1 above.
4 In re Ryan N. (2001) 92 Cal.App.4th 1359, 1384. (“Applying these principles to the facts in the record before us, it is clear there was sufficient evidence to find appellant guilty of an attempt to violate section 401 by deliberately aiding, advising and encouraging another person to commit suicide. The evidence, construed in a light most favorable to the prosecution, shows that appellant encouraged the victim to commit suicide; advised her to do so by ingesting up to 100 Nytol pills all at once; and actively participated in her actual suicide attempt by helping her to obtain the pills, combining at least two bottles of pills together, and then handing them to her. But for the fact that—unknown to either appellant or the victim—the intended means of suicide was not lethal, appellant would clearly be guilty of the crime of aiding, advising and encouraging another to commit suicide under section 401. Under the circumstances presented, he is guilty of the lesser offense of attempted aiding, advising and encouraging of a suicide. (§§ 21a, 401, 1159.)”)
5 In re Thomas C. (1986) 183 Cal.App.3d 786, 799. (“It explained that where a person actually performs or actively assists in performing the overt act resulting in death, his act constitutes murder. In this circumstance it is immaterial whether this act is committed pursuant to an agreement with the victim.”)
6 People v. Lam (2010) 184 Cal.App.4th 580, 584.
7 In re Joseph G. (1983) 34 Cal.3d 429, 440. (“In light of the foregoing analysis we decline to ritualistically apply the active/passive distinction of Matlock to the genuine suicide pact situation in which the suicides are undertaken simultaneously by a single instrumentality. Given the inapplicability of Matlock, the actions of the minor constitute no more than a violation of Penal Code section 401 [assisted suicide law].”)
8 Based on the facts of the same.
9 Based on the facts of People v. Lam, endnote 6 above.
10 Penal Code 401 PC – Suicide; aiding, advising, or encouraging, endnote 1 above.
Penal Code 18 PC – Punishment for felony not otherwise prescribed [including aiding or encouraging a suicide]; alternate sentence to county jail. (“(a) Except in cases where a different punishment is prescribed by any law of this state, every offense declared to be a felony is punishable by imprisonment for 16 months, or two or three years in the state prison unless the offense is punishable pursuant to subdivision (h) of Section 1170.”)
Penal Code 672 PC – 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 [such as aiding or advising a suicide], in addition to the imprisonment prescribed.”)
12 Penal Code 401 PC – Suicide; aiding, advising, or encouraging, endnote 1 above.