“Homicide” refers to the deliberate killing of one person by another – either lawfully or unlawfully. Under California’s homicide and murder laws, there are seven instances in which killing a person can lead to criminal charges. These include when the killing results in:
- capital murder,
- first-degree murder,
- second-degree murder,
- felony murder,
- voluntary manslaughter,
- involuntary manslaughter, and
- vehicular manslaughter.
With the exception of vehicular manslaughter, all of the above crimes are felony offenses. Penalties include time in California state prison, and may even include:
Vehicular manslaughter can be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony depending on the facts involved in the case. The maximum penalty is six years in state prison.
Our California criminal defense attorneys will discuss the following in this article:
- 1. What is capital murder?
- 2. How does California law define first-degree murder?
- 3. What about second-degree murder?
- 4. What does felony murder mean?
- 5. How does the law define voluntary manslaughter?
- 6. Is involuntary manslaughter different?
- 7. What about vehicular manslaughter?
1. What is capital murder?
State law says that there are two types of murder charges:
- first-degree murder, and
- second-degree murder.
Capital murder is essentially “first-degree murder with special circumstances.”
More specifically, capital murder applies to more than 20 different situations as listed under Penal Code Section 190.2 PC. Some of these include:
- killing for financial gain,
- killing more than one victim,
- killing a police officer, law enforcement officer, firefighter, prosecutor, judge, juror, or elected official,
- killing a witness to prevent giving testimony,
- hate crimes, or the killing because of the victim’s race, color, religion, nationality, or country of origin,
- committing a drive-by shooting, and
- committing a gang killing (e.g., a killing done via a street gang).
Capital murder is punishable by either:
- capital punishment (the death penalty), or
- life in prison without the possibility of parole (LWOP).
2. How does California law define first-degree murder?
A prosecutor must prove the following to successfully convict a defendant in California of murder:
- the defendant committed an intentional act that resulted in the killing of another person (or a fetus),
- the defendant committed that act with a state of mind called “malice aforethought,” and
- the accused killed without any lawful excuse or justification (for instance, self-defense).
Per Penal Code 189 PC, a prosecutor can charge first-degree murder when a person takes a human life by:
- using a destructive device, a weapon of mass destruction, or poison,
- inflicting torture pursuant to Penal Code 206 PC,
- a willful, deliberate, and premeditated killing,
- committing felony-murder, or
- lying in wait.
First-degree murder is a felony offense in California. The crime is punishable by:
- 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.
3. What about second-degree murder?
California Penal Code 189 PC specifically states that any murder that is not first-degree murder is second-degree murder.
Second-degree murder is the unlawful killing of a human being that is done without deliberation and premeditation, but with malice aforethought.
Examples of acts that constitute second-degree murder include:
- shooting a gun into a crowded room and killing someone, where the shooter did not intend to kill, and
- a person with multiple DUIs on their record driving drunk and causing an accident that kills someone else.
Second-degree murder carries a penalty of 15 years-to-life in state prison.
Note, though, that there are some sentencing enhancements that may increase this sentence depending on the facts of a case.
For example, a defendant may face a lifetime term in prison with no possibility of parole if he/she had a prior murder conviction on his/her criminal record.
4. What does felony murder mean?
Under California’s felony murder rule, someone commits this offense when he/she kills another person while committing a dangerous felony (or attempting to commit a dangerous felony).
Examples of felony murder are when:
- a person commits the felony of grand theft auto and intentionally hits a witness with the car and drives over him.
- after robbing a convenience store, an offender stabs the store owner with a knife.
There are two degrees of felony murder in California – first-degree and second-degree.
First-degree felony murder is punishable by:
- 25 years to life in California state prison,
- LWOP, or
- the death penalty.
Second-degree felony murder is punishable by imprisonment in the state prison for 15 years to life.
5. How does the law define voluntary manslaughter?
According to Penal Code 192 PC, California law defines voluntary manslaughter as the killing of another human being:
- during a sudden quarrel,
- in the heat of passion, or
- based on an honest but unreasonable belief in the need to defend oneself.
Examples of voluntary manslaughter are when:
- a spouse kills his/her partner after catching the person having sex with someone else, and
- a person kills his/her neighbor with a knife after a shouting match escalates into a fight.
A person that commits this offense is guilty of a felony and can be punished with:
- custody in state prison for up to eleven years, and/or
- a maximum fine of $10,000.
6. Is involuntary manslaughter different?
Under Penal Code 192b PC, California law defines involuntary manslaughter as the unintentional killing of another person while committing either:
- a crime that is not an inherently dangerous felony, or
- a lawful act that might produce death.
Examples of involuntary manslaughter include when:
- a farm owner forces his workers to pick vegetables in record-breaking heat and one worker dies of heatstroke, and
- a person steals a bicycle and, while riding away, hits a pedestrian and causes that person’s eventual death.
The crime in question is a felony under California law. Potential penalties include:
- imprisonment in county jail for up to four years, and
- a maximum fine of $10,000.
7. What about vehicular manslaughter?
Per Penal Code 192c PC, a person commits the crime of vehicular manslaughter by:
- driving a motor vehicle in a negligent or unlawful manner, and
- thereby causing the death of another person.
Examples of vehicular manslaughter are when:
- a woman sends a text message from her cell phone while driving, and during the act, hits a bicyclist and kills him, and
- a teenager speeds on the highway and crashes into another car, killing that driver.
The penalties for this offense depend on whether the defendant acted with:
- gross negligence, or
- ordinary negligence.
If a defendant acted with gross negligence, then vehicular manslaughter is a wobbler. A wobbler is a crime that a prosecutor can charge as either a misdemeanor or a felony.
The maximum penalties for vehicular manslaughter when a person acts with gross negligence range from:
But if a defendant only acted with ordinary negligence, then a vehicular manslaughter charge is filed as a misdemeanor. The maximum sentence is one year in county jail.
For additional guidance or to discuss your case with a criminal defense lawyer, we invite you to contact our law firm at the Shouse Law Group. Our attorneys provide reliable legal advice and represent clients throughout California, including those in Los Angeles, Los Angeles County, Lancaster, and Long Beach.
 California Penal Code 187a PC. See also CALCRIM No. 520 – First- or Second-Degree Murder with Malice Aforethought. Judicial Council of California Criminal Jury Instructions (2020 edition).
 California Penal Code 190.2 PC.
 CALCRIM No. 520. For a discussion of express and implied malice, see People v. Dellinger (1989) 49 Cal.3d 1212; People v. Soto (2018) 4 Cal. 5th 968; and, People v. Garcia (2020) 57 Cal.App.5th 100.
 California Penal Code 189a PC.
 California Penal Code 190a PC.
 California Penal Code 189b PC.
 California Penal Code 190 PC.
 California Penal Code 190.05 PC.
 California Penal Code 192 PC.
 California Penal Code 193 PC.
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