"Hazing" -- the practice of making new members of a fraternity, sports team, or other social club or group go through difficult and sometimes humiliating tests -- is almost as old as American education itself. In the year 1641 -- over three hundred and fifty years ago -- Harvard College fined several students, and expelled another, for hazing freshmen.1
Hazing can help to create strong bonds between members of a group. It can be silly and entertaining (as in this clip from the 1978 movie Animal House, about a college fraternity). But it can also be cruel and demeaning. And now, in California, it can even be a crime.2
The California legislature passed Penal Code 245.6 PC, the law making hazing a crime, in 2006.3 The law was inspired by the death of a 21-year-old college student named Matthew Carrington4. Carrington died after members of a fraternity he was trying to join at California State University - Chico forced him to drink huge amounts of water and do calisthenics...all while being doused with more water and blasted with cold air.5 (Four fraternity members who led the hazing eventually pled guilty to charges of involuntary manslaughter.6 )
The intentions behind Penal Code 245.6 PC were no doubt good...but the law is also extremely problematic. Initiation rituals are incredibly common and have a long history in fraternities, school clubs, and sports teams. Most young people who participate in them have no idea that they could be guilty of a crime when things get out of hand. And California's anti-hazing law has the potential to really disrupt the lives of some of society's most promising young people: student athletes, college students, etc.
In this article, our California criminal defense attorneys7 explain Penal Code 245.6 PC, California's law that makes hazing a crime, by addressing the following:
If you would like more information after reading this article, we invite you to contact us at Shouse Law Group.
California law (Penal Code 245.6 PC) defines criminal hazing very specifically. Hazing -- or, at least, hazing that is a crime -- has to involve the following circumstances:
- It has to be part of an initiation or pre-initiation ceremony into a student organization or student body,
- It has to be likely to cause serious bodily injury to a student at the school or college,
- It does NOT include customary athletic events or school-sanctioned activities.8
We'll discuss each of these "elements" of the definition of hazing separately.
First of all, hazing can only occur during an "initiation or preinitiation ceremony into a student organization or student body."9
This means that hazing can only occur in a school setting...not in, say, a workplace or a social club that isn't associated with a school. Examples of settings where hazing can be a crime are:
- High school or college sports teams,
- College fraternities or sororities, and
- Gatherings of high school or college students where upperclassmen put freshmen through a series of "tests."
Example: Every fall, the seniors at Garfield High throw a huge party. Freshmen who want to be invited to the party have to go through a series of "tests" first. One of these tests involves eating food out of the dumpster of a local pizza restaurant. One year, a freshman has to go to the hospital after getting sick from the dumpster food.
Members of the Garfield senior class who ran the tests may face criminal charges under Penal Code 245.6 PC...because they carried out a dangerous ceremony to initiate new students into the student body at Garfield High.
Example: Eli wants to join the "Reindeer," a men's fraternal organization in his hometown. Scott is a current Reindeer member and is responsible for conducting Eli's initiation.
The traditional Reindeer initiation ceremony involves eating blowfish...an exotic fish that can be deadly if it's not prepared correctly.10 One of the Reindeer members is a professional chef who knows how to cook blowfish so that it's harmless.
But on the day of Eli's initiation, the chef is sick and can't attend. So Scott has to prepare the blowfish himself. He does it incorrectly, and Eli gets very ill.
Scott may face a lawsuit by Eli...but he cannot be prosecuted under California's anti-hazing law, because the dangerous initiation ceremony was not for a student organization or a student body.
Also, the hazing needs to be part of an "initiation or preinitiation ceremony" for criminal penalties to apply.11 This means that it needs to be focused either on people seeking membership to the group (like pledges to a fraternity), OR on people who have just joined the group.
Example: Carrie is a member of the cheerleading squad at her high school. She is a senior and has been a member for two years. Two other members of the squad, Becky and Sharla, strongly dislike Carrie and try to make her life difficult.
One night after practice, Becky and Sharla tell Carrie that they will try to get her kicked off the cheerleading squad if she doesn't do what they tell her to. They then tell her she needs to drive her car home (it is dark out) with no headlights, and they follow her to make sure she does so.
Becky and Sharla forced Carrie to do something dangerous in the context of a school club...but because the dangerous activity was not part of an initiation ceremony, they are probably not guilty of criminal hazing under California law.
Probably the most important factor in making hazing a crime is that it needs to be "likely to cause serious bodily injury" to someone.12
What counts as "serious bodily injury"? California criminal law defines it as "a serious impairment of physical condition."13 (This is similar to, but not exactly the same as, the definition of "great bodily injury," which can enhance the penalties for certain crimes.)
Serious bodily injury includes things like:
- Losing consciousness (i.e., passing out),
- A concussion,
- A broken bone,
- Loss or impairment of a body part,
- A wound requiring extensive stiches, and
- Serious disfigurement.14
So hazing that is humiliating or degrading...but is not likely to cause any physical injury to anyone...is not a crime under Penal Code 245.6 PC.
Example: As part of his initiation into a notorious fraternity at his college, Brent is required to approach a popular female professor and ask if she will have sex with him for money.
Both Brent and the female professor will be humiliated by this initiation ceremony, and Brent or the fraternity may get in trouble with campus authorities. But this is not criminal hazing, because it did not create a risk of physical injury to anyone.
On the other hand, it's important to note that hazing doesn't actually have to cause any serious bodily injury to be a crime. As long as there's a good chance that it could cause an injury, it's a crime even if no one happens to get hurt this time.15
Example: The rowing team at Iceberg High School has a longstanding tradition of welcoming new members to the team by throwing them into the very cold river where the team practices. The new members have always managed to swim to shore and climb out of the river, very cold but unharmed.
But this practice creates a serious risk that someone will be injured by hypothermia from the cold water, and/or will drown. So it may be criminal hazing even though no one has ever been hurt.
Interestingly, hazing does not need to be likely to injure the person who is actually being hazed...it just needs to be likely to cause serious bodily injury to any student in any school or college in the state of California.16
So, for example, if a hazing ceremony for a high school sports team requires new team members to attack members of a rival school's team, that can still be criminal hazing...even though the people who are likely to get hurt are not the new members being initiated, but the members of the rival team.
For purposes of California criminal law, hazing does not include either "customary athletic events" or "school-sanctioned events."17 So, in other words, something cannot be criminal hazing if it occurs at a normal athletic event like a sports game...or if it occurs in connection with an event run by the school administration (rather than by students).
Example: The hockey teams of St. Patrick's High School and Holy Family High School are playing against each other. The members of the St. Patrick's team have heard that Wayne, a new member of the Holy Family team, is incredible at hockey and could lead the Holy Family team to victory against St. Patrick's for years to come.
So the members of the St. Patrick's team decide to work together to put a lot of physical pressure on Wayne in the game. Their hope is that Wayne will end up with an injury that will make him unable to play hockey.
This is problematic behavior, and it may be a crime...but it is not the California crime of hazing under Penal Code 245.6 PC, because it occurred at a school-sanctioned customary athletic event.
According to Newport Beach criminal defense lawyer John Murray18 :
"The fact that criminal hazing doesn't include activities at school-sanctioned events takes a lot of the sting out of the criminal law against hazing. The reason is that, in the more serious hazing cases, where a student is injured, the student and his or her family are likely to care more about getting money to compensate for the injuries than about making sure the hazers get convicted of a crime. So they will probably file a civil lawsuit asking for damages.
The school probably has more money than the families of the kids who did the hazing. So the victim will probably try to argue that the school did sanction the event where the hazing occurred, in order to get money from the school. This, in turn, can make it harder for a prosecutor to argue that it was not a school-sanctioned event and that criminal penalties apply."
When hazing occurs but does not actually result in serious bodily injury to anyone, the crime of hazing is a misdemeanor in California law.19 The maximum criminal penalties for misdemeanor hazing are:
- A fine of at least one hundred dollars ($100) but no more than five thousand dollars ($5,000), OR
- Imprisonment in county jail for up to one (1) year, OR
- Both the fine and imprisonment.20
If an incident of hazing in California results in someone's death or serious bodily injury, then anyone who personally participated in the hazing can be charged with a
wobbler offense.21 This means that the prosecutor may choose to charge it as either a misdemeanor OR a felony, depending on the facts of the case and the defendant's criminal history.22
If the prosecutor chooses to prosecute this kind of hazing as a misdemeanor, and the defendant is convicted, s/he will be imprisoned in county jail, for no more than one (1) year.23
And if the prosecutor chooses to charge the crime of hazing as a felony, then the defendant, if convicted, will be imprisoned in county jail for either sixteen (16) months, two (2) years, or three (3) years.24 This is a pretty steep penalty for a crime that may look to a lot of people like nothing but a youthful prank that got out of hand!
Penal Code 245.6 also makes it clear that a hazing victim can bring a civil lawsuit -- that is, a lawsuit seeking payment of money -- against the individuals involved in the hazing...or against the organization that s/he was trying to join when the hazing occurred, as long as someone involved with running the organization authorized the hazing.25
So, if you face criminal charges for California hazing, there's a good chance you will also face a lawsuit by the person who was hazed or his/her family. Since this would be a non-criminal proceeding, it would be completely separate from the criminal case.
Because hazing necessarily has to take place in a school setting, many defendants in criminal hazing cases are under the age of eighteen (18). This means that instead of being tried in normal California criminal courts, their case will most likely be handled in the California juvenile court system.26
When a minor-someone under the age of 18-is accused of a crime, the potential penalties are less harsh and are designed more to "rehabilitate" the minor than to punish him/her.27 Potential penalties for a juvenile offender include:
- Informal probation,28
- Something called "deferred entry of judgment," in which the minor defendant admits being guilty of the crime but the charges are then dismissed once s/he completes a program,29 and
- Formal probation at home or a special probation "camp" for youthful offenders.30
Because the California crime of hazing is so new...and because it covers behavior that for many people just represents traditions that have been carried out for generations...most people charged with a crime for hazing will have no criminal history and no idea what to do next. If you or a family member are facing hazing charges, you probably feel confused and terrified.
Fortunately, there are a number of legal defenses that you can use to help beat these charges. In most cases, the more helpful defenses will be related to the very narrow definition of hazing in Penal Code 245.6 PC. For example:
- Did the hazing actually take place as part of an initiation or pre-initiation ceremony into a student group? If the supposed victim was a current member of the group, rather than a new member or an applicant, it may not have been criminal hazing.31
- Was the hazing actually likely to produce serious bodily injury? Even if someone got hurt, that doesn't mean this criterion for being true hazing was met...it could have been that they were hurt through a freak accident, or the injury was not truly serious.32
- Did the supposed hazing take place at a school-sanctioned event? If it did, the people involved may face a civil lawsuit...but cannot be convicted of the crime of hazing.33
Which of these defenses might apply depends on the specific facts of your case. An experienced California criminal defense attorney can help you sort out what your options are for defending yourself against hazing charges.
When an instance of hazing leads to somebody actually being hurt, the prosecutor may try to file charges for certain other California crimes along with the hazing charge. For example:
In California, the crime of battery-also known as "assault & battery"-consists of willfully touching someone against their will.34 If an act of hazing involved the hazers touching the people being hazed, particularly if the touching is somewhat violent (for example, spanking or paddling)...then the individuals charged with hazing might also be charged with battery.
Battery is ordinarily a misdemeanor punishable by up to six (6) months in county jail, a fine of up to two thousand dollars ($2,000), or both.35 But when it results in any "serious bodily injury," then it becomes a wobbler ...and is punished by up to one (1) year in county jail if charged as a misdemeanor, or imprisonment for two (2), three (3) or four (4) years if charged as a felony.36
Some cases of hazing that have received a lot of media attention involve forcible acts of sexual penetration-that is, penetration of the victim's vagina or anus with a foreign object.37
This is a serious felony that is punished with time in a California state prison.38 If the sexual penetration is accomplished by threatening to retaliate if the other person does not permit it-probably the most common scenario in hazing cases-the maximum sentence is three (3), six (6), or eight (8) years.39 But if it is accomplished by violence or the threat of immediate violence, then the maximum penalty rises to ten (10) or even twelve (12) years when the person being sexually hazed is a minor under age 18.40
Call us for help.
If you or loved one is charged with Penal Code 245.6 PC hazing and you are looking to hire an attorney for representation, we invite you to contact us at Shouse Law Group. We can provide a free consultation in office or by phone. We have local offices in Los Angeles, the San Fernando Valley, Pasadena, Long Beach, Orange County, Ventura, San Bernardino, Rancho Cucamonga, Riverside, San Diego, Sacramento, Oakland, San Francisco, San Jose and throughout California.
To learn about Nevada hazing laws, you may go to our page on Nevada "Hazing" Laws (NRS 200.605).
1 Harvard College, Office of Student Life, Hazing at Harvard: A Historical Perspective.
2Penal Code 245.6 PC - Hazing; punishment. ("(a) It shall be unlawful to engage in hazing, as defined in this section.")
3Same, Historical and Statutory Notes. ("Added by Stats.2006, c. 601 (S.B.1454), 4.")
4Same, Historical and Statutory Notes. ("Sections 5 and 6 of Stats.2006, c. 601 (S.B.1454), provide: 'SEC. 5. This act shall be known and may be cited as "Matt's Law" in memory of Matthew William Carrington, who died on February 2, 2005, as a result of hazing.'")
See also Obituary, Matthew William Carrington, San Francisco Chronicle, Feb. 6, 2005.
5 See Greg Lucas, 4 plead guilty in hazing death, San Francisco Chronicle, Oct. 29, 2005.
7 Our California criminal defense attorneys have local Los Angeles law offices in Beverly Hills, Burbank, Glendale, Lancaster, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Pasadena, Pomona, Torrance, Van Nuys, West Covina, and Whittier. We have additional law offices conveniently located throughout the state in Orange County, San Diego, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura, San Jose, Oakland, the San Francisco Bay area, Sacramento, and several nearby cities.
8 Penal Code 245.6 PC - Hazing; punishment. ("(b) 'Hazing' means any method of initiation or preinitiation into a student organization or student body, whether or not the organization or body is officially recognized by an educational institution, which is likely to cause serious bodily injury to any former, current, or prospective student of any school, community college, college, university, or other educational institution in this state. The term 'hazing' does not include customary athletic events or school-sanctioned events.")
10 See, e.g., David Nakamura, The Deadly Blowfish: Last Meal in Tokyo?, The Washington Post, July 30, 2006.
11 Penal Code 245.6 PC - Hazing; punishment.
12 Same. ("(b) 'Hazing' means any method of initiation or preinitiation into a student organization or student body, whether or not the organization or body is officially recognized by an educational institution, which is likely to cause serious bodily injury to any former, current, or prospective student of any school, community college, college, university, or other educational institution in this state.")
13 Penal Code 243 - Battery; punishment. ("(f)(4) 'Serious bodily injury' means a serious impairment of physical condition, including, but not limited to, the following: loss of consciousness; concussion; bone fracture; protracted loss or impairment of function of any bodily member or organ; a wound requiring extensive suturing; and serious disfigurement.")
15 Penal Code 245.6 PC - Hazing; punishment. ("(b) 'Hazing' means any method of initiation or preinitiation into a student organization or student body, whether or not the organization or body is officially recognized by an educational institution, which is likely to cause serious bodily injury to any former, current, or prospective student of any school, community college, college, university, or other educational institution in this state.") (emphasis added)
16 Same. . ("(b) 'Hazing' means any method of initiation or preinitiation into a student organization or student body, whether or not the organization or body is officially recognized by an educational institution, which is likely to cause serious bodily injury to any former, current, or prospective student of any school, community college, college, university, or other educational institution in this state.") (emphasis added)
17 Same. ("The term 'hazing' does not include customary athletic events or school-sanctioned events.")
18 Newport Beach criminal defense lawyer John Murray represents clients in matters ranging from DUI to homicide in courthouses across Los Angeles and Orange counties.
19 Penal Code 245.6 PC - Hazing; punishment. ("(c) A violation of this section that does not result in serious bodily injury is a misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of not less than one hundred dollars ($100), nor more than five thousand dollars ($5,000), or imprisonment in the county jail for not more than one year, or both.")
21 Same. ("(d) Any person who personally engages in hazing that results in death or serious bodily injury as defined in paragraph (4) of subdivision (f) of Section 243 of the Penal Code, is guilty of either a misdemeanor or a felony, and shall be punished by imprisonment in county jail not exceeding one year, or by imprisonment pursuant to subdivision (h) of Section 1170.")
See also Penal Code 1170(h) PC. ("(h)(1) Except as provided in paragraph (3), a felony punishable pursuant to this subdivision where the term is not specified in the underlying offense shall be punishable by a term of imprisonment in a county jail for 16 months, or two or three years.")
25 Penal Code 245.6 PC - Hazing; punishment. ("(e) The person against whom the hazing is directed may commence a civil action for injury or damages. The action may be brought against any participants in the hazing, or any organization to which the student is seeking membership whose agents, directors, trustees, managers, or officers authorized, requested, commanded, participated in, or ratified the hazing.")
26 Welfare & Institutions Code 602 WIC. ("(a) Except as provided in subdivision (b), any person who is under the age of 18 years when he or she violates any law of this state or of the United States or any ordinance of any city or county of this state defining crime other than an ordinance establishing a curfew based solely on age, is within the jurisdiction of the juvenile court, which may adjudge such person to be a ward of the court.")
27 Welfare & Institutions Code 202 WIC. ("(b) Minors under the jurisdiction of the juvenile court who are in need of protective services shall receive care, treatment, and guidance consistent with their best interest and the best interest of the public. Minors under the jurisdiction of the juvenile court as a consequence of delinquent conduct shall, in conformity with the interests of public safety and protection, receive care, treatment, and guidance that is consistent with their best interest, that holds them accountable for their behavior, and that is appropriate for their circumstances. This guidance may include punishment that is consistent with the rehabilitative objectives of this chapter. . . .(e) As used in this chapter, 'punishment' means the imposition of sanctions. It does not include retribution . . . .")
28 Welfare & Institutions Code Section 725 WIC. ("After receiving and considering the evidence on the proper disposition of the case, the court may enter judgment as follows: (a) If the court has found that the minor is a person described by Section 601 or 602, by reason of the commission of an offense other than any of the offenses set forth in Section 654.3, it may, without adjudging the minor a ward of the court, place the minor on probation, under the supervision of the probation officer, for a period not to exceed six months.")
29 Welfare & Institutions Code 720 WIC. ("(b) The prosecuting attorney shall review his or her file to determine whether or not paragraphs (1) to (6), inclusive, of subdivision (a) apply. If the minor is found eligible for deferred entry of judgment, the prosecuting attorney shall file a declaration in writing with the court or state for the record the grounds upon which the determination is based, and shall make this information available to the minor and his or her attorney. Upon a finding that the minor is also suitable for deferred entry of judgment and would benefit from education, treatment, and rehabilitation efforts, the court may grant deferred entry of judgment. Under this procedure, the court may set the hearing for deferred entry of judgment at the initial appearance under Section 657. The court shall make findings on the record that a minor is appropriate for deferred entry of judgment pursuant to this article in any case where deferred entry of judgment is granted.")
30 Welfare & Institutions Code 730 WIC. ("(a) When a minor is adjudged a ward of the court on the ground that he or she is a person described by Section 602, the court may order any of the types of treatment referred to in Section 727, and as an additional alternative, may commit the minor to a juvenile home, ranch, camp, or forestry camp. If there is no county juvenile home, ranch, camp, or forestry camp within the county, the court may commit the minor to the county juvenile hall.")
31 Penal Code 245.6 PC - Hazing; punishment. ("(b) 'Hazing' means any method of initiation or preinitiation into a student organization or student body, whether or not the organization or body is officially recognized by an educational institution, which is likely to cause serious bodily injury to any former, current, or prospective student of any school, community college, college, university, or other educational institution in this state. The term 'hazing' does not include customary athletic events or school-sanctioned events.")
34 Penal Code 242 PC - Battery. ("Battery defined. A battery is any willful and unlawful use of force or violence upon the person of another.")
35 Penal Code 243 PC - Battery; punishment. ("(a) A battery is punishable by a fine not exceeding two thousand dollars ($2,000), or by imprisonment in a county jail not exceeding six months, or by both that fine and imprisonment.")
36 Same. ("(d) When a battery is committed against any person and serious bodily injury is inflicted on the person, the battery is punishable by imprisonment in a county jail not exceeding one year or imprisonment pursuant to subdivision (h) of Section 1170 for two, three, or four years.")
37 See, e.g., Richard Winton, Four La Puente High students arrested on suspicion of assault, Los Angeles Times, Sept. 24, 2012.
38 Penal Code 289 PC - Forcible acts of sexual penetration; punishment.
39 Same. ("(a)(2) Any person who commits an act of sexual penetration when the act is accomplished against the victim's will by threatening to retaliate in the future against the victim or any other person, and there is a reasonable possibility that the perpetrator will execute the threat, shall be punished by imprisonment in the state prison for three, six, or eight years.")
40 Same. ("(a)(1)(B) Any person who commits an act of sexual penetration upon a child who is under 14 years of age, when the act is accomplished against the victim's will by means of force, violence, duress, menace, or fear of immediate and unlawful bodily injury on the victim or another person, shall be punished by imprisonment in the state prison for 8, 10, or 12 years. (C) Any person who commits an act of sexual penetration upon a minor who is 14 years of age or older, when the act is accomplished against the victim's will by means of force, violence, duress, menace, or fear of immediate and unlawful bodily injury on the victim or another person, shall be punished by imprisonment in the state prison for 6, 8, or 10 years.")