Penal Code 152 PC is the California statute that makes it a crime for a person to conceal, or attempt to conceal, an accidental death. Under this section, “conceal” includes such acts as hiding a body, destroying evidence, or hiding the objects or instruments that caused the accidental death.
Examples of concealing an accidental death are when:
- A person chooses not to tell a police officer information about where a body is;
- A parent discovers that his child accidentally overdosed on prescription pills and flushes the pills down the toilet;
- A mountain climber discovers that another climber died due to a fall and covers the body with a camouflage tarp.
A person that violates PC 152 is guilty of a misdemeanor. The crime is punishable by up to one year in the county jail and a fine ranging from $1,000 to $10,000.
There are several legal defenses that a person can raise if accused of concealing an accidental death. These include showing that he or she:
- was unaware of the death or the body, or
- acted under duress
Our California criminal defense attorneys will highlight the following in this article:
- 1.The Legal Definition of Concealment of an Accidental Death
- 2. Legal Defenses
- 3. Penalties, Punishment, and Sentencing
- 4. Related Offenses
1. The Legal Definition of Concealment of an Accidental Death
There are two essential elements to the crime of concealing an accidental death, per Penal Code 152 PC. A prosecutor must prove each element in order to successfully prove that a defendant is guilty of this offense.
The two elements are:
- The defendant knew of the accidental death of another person; and,
- The defendant actively concealed or attempted to conceal the death.1
PC 152(b) provides the definition of “actively conceal.” This section states that a person actively conceals an accidental death by doing any of the following:
- Performing an “overt act” that conceals the body or directly impedes the ability of authorities or family members to discover the body.
- Directly destroying or suppressing evidence of the actual physical body of the deceased, including bodily fluids and tissues.
- Destroying or suppressing the instruments causing, or means of, the accidental death.2
1.1. Meaning of Accidental Death
California law states that an accidental death is a death caused by accidental means. In addition, there must be an element of unexpectedness within the accident that causes the death.
One California court has stated:
It is not enough that the death or injury should be unexpected or unforeseen, but there must be some element of unexpectedness in the preceding act or occurrence which leads to the death.3
Some causes of accidental deaths include:
- Motor vehicle accidents,
- Firearms, and
- Industrial accidents
1.2. Attempt to conceal
California Penal Code 152 PC makes it a crime both to conceal, and “attempt” to conceal, an accidental death. Under Penal Code 21(a) PC, a person can be convicted of an attempted crime in the California criminal court process.
A person can get convicted of an attempted crime if the following are true:
- The person intended to commit a certain crime; and,
- He performed some act, albiet an ineffective act, toward committing the crime.4
As a general matter, a person guilty of an attempted crime in California will face a prison/jail sentence that is half as long as the sentence he would have received if he had been convicted of the actual offense.5
This rule is true no matter if a defendant is convicted of an attempted California misdemeanor or an attempted California felony.6
If the crime the defendant attempted carries a sentence of life in prison, or the California death penalty, then he will be sentenced to five, seven, or nine years.7
1.3. Meaning of Overt Act
According to PC 152 (b)(1), one definition of “actively conceal” is when a person performs an “overt act” that either:
- Conceals the body; or,
- Directly frustrates the ability of authorities or family members to discover the body.
The term “overt act” is a legal term that often arises in criminal law matters. California courts have defined the term as:
- An act done in an attempt to further or advance a crime; and,
- An act that shows an intent to accomplish the crime.8
For example, it is a specific act when a person purchases a ski mask. If there is nothing more to the story, the act is simply a basic one. However, the act becomes an overt act if the person purchased it within planning to rob a bank.
2. Legal Defenses
A person accused of the crime of concealing an accidental death, per PC 152, may raise a legal defense on his behalf. A good defense can often get a Penal Code 152 charge reduced or even dismissed. Please note, though, that is critical for an accused to hire an attorney to raise a defense on his behalf.
Two common defenses to PC 152 accusations are:
- Being unaware of body or evidence;
- Acting under duress
2.1. Unaware of Body or Evidence
This defense applies when a person may have walked, or traveled, near a body, but did not see it or any evidence related to the death.
Example: Lisa is walking home from work through a wooded trail. Twenty-five yards off the trail, in an area of dense pine trees, lie a man that died after falling from a cliff. After a frantic search lasting a week, authorities ultimately find the man's body. The authorities, though, arrest Lisa for concealing an accidental death after learning that she walked near the body. It is a perfectly solid defense for Lisa to show that, while she may have walked near the body, she never saw it and was unaware of the incident.
Duress is a somewhat common legal defense in which an accused basically says: “He made me do it.” The defense, though, applies in the very limited situation in which a person commits a crime because he believes his life to be in immediate danger because of some threat.9 In other words, the defense applies in situations where a person commits a crime because somebody threatened to kill him if the crime was not committed.
Example: James is home from college during the summer. One summer afternoon, he goes to his friend's (David's) house. James enters the home and finds David's body lying in the kitchen. Close to the body is David's father, weeping and holding a pill dispenser. The father communicates that David accidentally took the wrong medication and died.
After a few moments, the father grabs a butcher's knife from a kitchen drawer. He points it at James' neck and threatens to kill him if he tells anyone about the accident. Days later, police investigating the death, learn that James found David's body and they charge him for concealing an accidental death. But, if James' attorney can show the prosecutor that James did not inform the authorities of David's death because he was in fear of his life, then the charge should be dropped.
3. Penalties, Punishment, and Sentencing
Any person guilty of concealing, or attempting to conceal, an accidental death is guilty of a misdemeanor, under Penal Code 152 PC.10
Further, the crime is punishable by:
- Imprisonment in the county jail for not more than one year; and/or,
- A fine between the amounts of $1,000 and $10,000.11
4. Related Offenses
There are three crimes related to concealment of an accidental death, as set forth in PC 152. These are:
- Involuntary manslaughter – Penal Code 192(b);
- Accessory after the fact – Penal Code 32; and,
- Destroying or concealing evidence – Penal Code 135
4.1. Involuntary Manslaughter – Penal Code 192(b)
Involuntary manslaughter occurs when one person kills another unintentionally, either
- While committing a crime that is not an inherently dangerous felony; or,
- While committing a lawful act which might produce death, without due caution.12
Under Penal Code 192(b), a key feature of California's involuntary manslaughter law is that it does not require intent to kill another person—unlike Penal Code 187 murder, which requires “malice aforethought.”13
Please note that California's involuntary manslaughter law does not include actions that fit the above definition but involve a car. Those will be charged under California's vehicular manslaughter laws.14
Involuntary manslaughter is a felony in California. Possible penalties include:
- Two, three, or four years in jail; and/or,
- A fine of up to $10,000.15
4.2. Accessory After the Fact – Penal Code 32
Per PC 32, "accessory after the fact" is harboring, concealing or aiding a person whom you know has committed a felony, in order to protect him or her from
- conviction and/or
A prosecutor must prove four elements to successfully convict a person of the crime of accessory after the fact crime. These elements are:
- Someone committed a felony (there are no accessories to misdemeanors);
- The defendant knowingly harbored, concealed or aided that individual:
- While knowing that he/she had
- Committed the felony
- Was charged with the felony, or
- Was convicted of the felony
- In order to protect him/her from arrest, trial, conviction and/or sentencing.17
To determine whether an individual meets these elements, the court considers such factors as:
- The defendant's presence (or absence) at the crime scene;
- How the defendant knew about the felony; and,
- The defendant's relationship to the principal, both before and after the offense.
Being an accessory after the fact is a wobbler under California law. This means that prosecutors may file the charge as either a misdemeanor or a felony.
If convicted under Penal Code 32 PC, a person faces up to a $5,000 fine and:
- Up to one year in a county jail for a misdemeanor, or
- 16 months or two or three years in the California state prison for a felony.
4.3 Destroying or Concealing Evidence – Penal Code 135
California Penal Code 135 PC makes it a crime to destroy or conceal evidence that a person knows is relevant to a court case or legal investigation.
A prosecutor must prove three elements in order to successfully convict a person under PC 135. These are:
- The defendant destroyed or concealed evidence;
- The defendant knew that the evidence was going to be used as evidence; and,
- The defendant destroyed or concealed the evidence "willfully."18
“Willfully” means that a person actually intended to destroy or conceal evidence.19
A person can violate Penal Code 135 PC by destroying or concealing pretty much any kind of evidence -- including digital images and video recordings. The evidence does not need to be a legal document or some other item that's obviously legally important.
The California crime of destroying or concealing evidence is a misdemeanor. The maximum penalty is:
- Up to six months in county jail; and/or,
- A fine of up to $1,000.20
Were you accused of concealing an accidental death in California? Call us for help…
If you or someone you know has been accused of concealment of an accidental death, per Penal Code 152, we invite you to contact us for a free consultation. We can be reached 24/7 at 855-LAWFIRM.
California Penal Code 152(a) PC.
California Penal Code 152(b)(1) -(b)(3) PC.
California Penal Code 21(a) PC.
California Penal Code 664 PC.
People v. Zamora, 18 Cal. 3d 538 (1976).
Judicial Council of California Criminal Jury Instructions ("CALCRIM") 3402 - Duress or threats. ("The defendant acted under duress if, because of threat or menace, (he/she) believed that (his/her/ [or] someone else's) life would be in immediate danger if (he/she) refused a demand or request to commit the crime.")
California Penal Code 152(a) PC.
California Penal Code 192(b) PC.
Penal Code 187 PC – Murder [contrast with definition of involuntary manslaughter]. (“(a) Murder is the unlawful killing of a human being, or a fetus, with malice aforethought.”)
California Penal Code 192(c) PC.
California Penal Code 193 PC.
California Penal Code 32 PC.
CALJIC 6.40 Accessories.
California Penal Code 135 PC.
Penal Code 7 PC - Words and phrases. ("1. The word "willfully," when applied to the intent with which an act is done or omitted, implies simply a purpose or willingness to commit the act, or make the omission referred to. It does not require any intent to violate law, or to injure another, or to acquire any advantage.")
California Penal Code 19 PC.