“Mayhem” is defined in California Penal Code § 203 PC as the act of unlawfully or maliciously attacking another person in a way that causes disfigurement or disability. A conviction is a felony punishable by up to 8 years in prison and fines of up to $10,000.
The language of the code section states that:
203. 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.
The even more serious crime of “aggravated mayhem” is defined in Penal Code 205 PC. Aggravated mayhem consists of intentionally
- causing someone a permanent disability or disfigurement, or
- depriving him/her of a limb, organ or member.1 2
“Mayhem” is a fairly obscure word and is not as familiar to most people as other violent crimes like torture and aggravated battery. Though it is a serious crime, and California law punishes it quite harshly.
Here are several examples of people who might find themselves facing mayhem charges:
- A man pulls a knife on a woman and cuts her with the knife, slitting her ear.
- A woman attacks her husband with a hot iron, leaving him with permanent scars.
- Several fraternity members tattoo the fraternity’s logo on a pledge’s buttocks against his will.
Mayhem is a felony in California law. A conviction under Penal Code 203 PC can lead to
- two (2) years,
- four (4) years,
- or eight (8) years
in California state prison, and a fine of up to ten thousand dollars ($10,000).3
Aggravated mayhem, on the other hand, can lead to a sentence of life in state prison with the possibility of parole.4
There is hope—and a good criminal defense attorney can help you find the most promising legal defenses against mayhem charges. Depending on the circumstances, these might include:
- You did not act intentionally or maliciously (a form of the legal defense of accident);
- You acted in self-defense/defense of others; and/or
- You were falsely accused.
In order to help you better understand the crime of mayhem, our California criminal defense attorneys will address the following:
- 1. How does California law define the crime of mayhem?
- 2. What are the penalties upon a Penal Code 203 PC conviction?
- 3. What are the best defenses to the charge?
- 4. PC 203 & 205 Mayhem & Related Offenses
If, after reading this article, you would like more information, we invite you to contact us at Shouse Law Group.
1. How does California law define the crime of mayhem?
The legal definition of mayhem under California Penal Code 203 is performing one of the following acts, unlawfully and maliciously:
- Removing a part of someone’s body;
- Disabling or making useless a part of someone’s body, in a way that is more than slight or temporary;
- Permanently disfiguring someone;
- Cutting or disabling someone’s tongue;
- Slitting someone’s nose, ear or lip; or
- Putting out someone’s eye, or injuring someone’s eye in a way that makes the eye useless for the purpose of ordinary sight.5
Let’s take a better look at some of the key terms in this legal definition so that we can better explain their meaning.
You can only commit the crime of simple mayhem under California Penal Code 203 if you act maliciously. Acting maliciously means that you either:
- Intentionally do a wrongful act; or
- Act with the unlawful intent to annoy or injure someone else.6
What this means is that you are not guilty of mayhem if you acted entirely by accident, without the intent to do something wrongful or to unlawfully injure anyone else.
Example: By mistake Josephine drops an open bottle of cleaning solution, causing the solution to splash into Anne’s face – leaving her blind in one eye. Josephine is not guilty of mayhem, though, because she did not act maliciously.
At the same time, it is important to understand that simple mayhem under Penal Code 203 is what is known as a “general intent” crime.7
This means that—even though you need to have intended to do something unlawful to be guilty of this offense—you do NOT need to have specifically intended to inflict one of the forms of serious injury required for a mayhem conviction.
Example: Tony fires a gun at a passing car, leaving the driver paralyzed for life. Since Tony acted maliciously, he is guilty of mayhem (as well as assault with a firearm) even though there is no evidence that he specifically meant to inflict an injury on Richard that would leave him disabled.8
Disabling a part of someone’s body
One way to commit mayhem is to injure someone in a way that leaves them with a disability which is more than
- slight or
Though this does not mean that the disability needs to be permanent. As long as it continues for a material amount of time, it can be the basis for a mayhem conviction.10
Example: John attacks Melissa, leaving her with a broken ankle requiring crutches for six months. Since John’s actions left a part of Melissa’s body (her ankle) disabled in a significant way for an extended period of time, he is guilty of PC 203 mayhem.11
For purposes of California mayhem law, a disfiguring injury can be considered “permanent” even if it is possible for medical technology to repair it.12
So, for example, you are guilty of mayhem if you cut off someone’s finger maliciously—even if it is possible for surgeons to re-attach the finger (and, indeed, even if they do so).
Also, a permanent disfigurement can include disfigurement of a part of the body that is normally covered by clothing.13
Example: Jeffrey burns Kathleen’s breasts with a lit cigarette, leaving behind scars. Jeffrey is guilty of Penal Code 203 PC mayhem because the burns are a permanent disfigurement even though they will not be visible when she is wearing clothes.14
2. What are the penalties upon a Penal Code 203 PC conviction?
The potential penalties for mayhem under Penal Code 203 are:
- Felony (formal) probation;
- Two (2), four (4) or eight (8) years in California state prison; and/or
- A fine of up to ten thousand dollars ($10,000).15
Your sentence may also be enhanced if the alleged victim is:
- Sixty-five (65) years of age or older;
- Under the age of fourteen (14);
- Blind or deaf;
- Developmentally disabled; or
- A paraplegic or quadriplegic.16
If any of these is the case, you will receive a one (1) or two (2) year sentence enhancement, provided that you knew or reasonably should have known that the relevant fact about the victim was true.17
2.1. Mayhem and California Three Strikes
So if you have a mayhem conviction on your record, and you are subsequently charged with any other California felony, you will face twice the normal sentence for that second offense.19
If you accumulate three “strike” convictions—one or more of which may be a conviction for mayhem—then you will receive a sentence of twenty-five (25) years to life in state prison.20
3. What are the best defenses to the charge?
According to San Diego criminal defense attorney David F. Poblete21:
“Defendants charged with mayhem in California have a tough fight ahead of them. Prosecutors only bring these charges if there is an alleged victim with a fairly serious injury. These victims are usually pretty sympathetic—and prosecutors are usually intent on convicting someone of a crime carrying hefty penalties. But, more often than not, the truth is more complicated than the simple story the DA is trying to tell.”
Common legal defenses that are often useful to defendants in mayhem cases include:
You did not act intentionally or maliciously
You are only guilty of aggravated mayhem if you intended to inflict a disfiguring or disabling injury on the victim.22
Intent is a very difficult thing for a prosecutor to prove beyond a reasonable doubt. Many mayhem cases grow out of violent altercations in which the defendant was not acting in a rational or calculated way.
If the victim was severely injured as part of an “indiscriminate attack,” then the defendant is only guilty of Penal Code 203 simple mayhem23—which carries a much lighter sentence than aggravated mayhem.
Even in simple mayhem cases, the prosecutor needs to prove that the defendant acted maliciously.24 If the injury was inflicted by accident, then the defendant is not guilty of mayhem—no matter how negligently s/he was behaving.
Self-defense/defense of others
You will not be guilty of mayhem for actions you took while you were acting in self-defense or defense of someone else.
This defense applies if all of the following are true:
- You reasonably believed that you or someone else was in imminent danger of suffering bodily injury or being touched unlawfully;
- You reasonably believed that you needed to use force to defend against that danger; and
- You used no more force than was reasonably necessary to defend against that danger.25
Example: After a deranged man attacks Rachel on the street, she fights back by slashing his face with her penknife – leaving disfiguring scars on his cheeks. Rachel is probably not guilty of mayhem because she was acting in self-defense.
One important thing to note, though: with many California crimes, you can use the legal defense of “imperfect self-defense” if you had an honest but mistaken belief that you needed to use force to defend yourself. Though imperfect self-defense does not apply to California mayhem.26
You were falsely accused
People falsely accuse other people of crimes—even serious crimes like mayhem—for a variety of reasons.
The most obvious is that the real culprit doesn’t want to face the penalties and has managed to convince police and prosecutors—and sometimes even the victim—that you did it.
Some people, usually those who are mentally ill, may go so far as
- to injure themselves and
- falsely blame someone else for it.
In this case, you will want to hire a criminal defense lawyer who is familiar with medical and other forensic evidence in mayhem cases—and the investigative techniques that are most effective at ensuring that the true story comes out.
4. PC 203 Mayhem & Related Offenses
Similar offenses to California simple mayhem and aggravated mayhem include:
4.1. PC 206 torture
Under Penal Code 206 PC, the definition of the crime of “torture” in California is:
- Inflicting great bodily injury on another person,
- With the intent to cause cruel or extreme pain and suffering,
- For the purpose of revenge, extortion (518 PC), persuasion or any sadistic purpose.27
Unlike the crime of mayhem, which focuses on the injury done to the victim, the crime of torture is defined largely by the intent of the defendant. You can be convicted of torture even if the victim does not actually suffer pain.28
The penalties for torture, which is a felony, are
- a life sentence in California state prison, and
- a fine of up to ten thousand dollars ($10,000).29
It is common for defendants to be charged with both torture and mayhem—if, for example, they are alleged to have inflicted an injury that meets the definition of mayhem, with the intent to cause extreme pain.
4.2. PC 242 battery
The California crime of Penal Code 242 PC battery consists of any willful and unlawful use of force or violence on someone else.30
In most cases, battery is a misdemeanor in California law, carrying:
- a fine of up to two thousand dollars ($2,000), and/or
- up to six (6) months in county jail.31
If you are charged with mayhem but the evidence against you is weak, your criminal defense attorney may try to negotiate a charge reduction to battery—which carries a much lighter sentence and much less of a stigma on a criminal record.
4.3. Relationship of mayhem to California murder
If you accidentally kill someone while committing mayhem—or attempting to commit mayhem—then you can be charged with first-degree murder under California’s “felony-murder rule.“32
Penal Code 187 PC murder is punishable by twenty-five (25) years to life in state prison.33
Call us for help…
For questions about the crimes of Penal Code 203 PC mayhem, 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.
For more information on Nevada “mayhem” laws, please see our page on Nevada “mayhem” laws (NRS 200.280).
- Penal Code 203 PC. See, for example, People v. Abelino (Cal. App. 1st Dist., 2021) 62 Cal. App. 5th 563.
- Penal Code 205 PC.
- Penal Code 204 PC.
- Penal Code 205 PC
- CALCRIM 801.
- People v. Villegas (2001) 92 Cal.App.4th 1217.
- CALCRIM 801 – Mayhem (Pen. Code, § 203), endnote 5, above.
- See People v. Thomas (1979) 96 Cal.App.3d 507.
- Based on the facts of the same.
- CALCRIM 801 – Mayhem (Pen. Code, § 203). (“[A disfiguring injury may be permanent even if it can be repaired by medical procedures.]”)
- People v. Keenan (1991) 227 Cal.App.3d 26.
- See endnote 3, above. See also People v. Vasquez (Cal. App. 2d Dist., 2020) 44 Cal. App. 5th 732.
- Penal Code 667.9 PC.
- Penal Code 667.5 PC – Violent felonies. (“(c) For the purpose of this section, “violent felony” shall mean any of the following: . . . (2) Mayhem. . . .”)
- Penal Code 667(e)(1) PC – Three strikes law.
- San Diego criminal defense attorney David F. Poblete has devoted his career to defending the civil rights of criminal defendants in all types of cases.
- CALCRIM 800 – Aggravated Mayhem (Pen. Code, § 205), endnote 15, above.
- People v. Park, endnote 16, above.
- CALCRIM 801 – Mayhem (Pen. Code, § 203), endnote 5, above.
- CALCRIM 3470.
- CALCRIM 801.
- Penal Code 206 PC.
- California Penal Code 206.1 PC.
- Penal Code 242 PC.
- Penal Code 243 PC.
- CALCRIM 540A.
- Penal Code 190 PC.