Can You Be Prosecuted for Causing Someone’s Suicide in California?
Last Updated on January 6, 2021
Suicide is the act of taking your own life. California’s laws do not criminalize suicide. The End of Life Option Act allows someone to take his or her life with prescribed medications.
However, a California statute makes it illegal for someone to encourage or help another person commit suicide. A conviction under this statute is a felony offense that could result in up to three years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000.
Assisted Suicide as a Crime in California
Penal Code §401 PC states that it is a felony for a person to deliberately advise, encourage, or aid another person in committing suicide. For the state to prove that you are guilty of the crime, it must prove both of the following elements:
- An individual attempted to commit suicide or committed suicide
- You deliberately encouraged, advised, or aided in the suicide
If the person does not die, you cannot be charged with a crime under this code section. However, you could be charged with attempting to assist in a suicide.
Murder vs. Suicide
In some cases, you could face murder charges for assisting someone in committing suicide.
PC 401 covers instances in which you had a passive role in the person’s suicide. For example, you gave the person prescription medication for an overdose or told the person how to commit suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning. In both cases, you did not actively participate in the person’s suicide attempt.
However, if you have an active role in the suicide, you could face murder charges. For instance, you kicked a chair out from under someone who wanted to hang themselves or you injected drugs into someone who wanted to overdose. A prosecutor could decide to charge you with murder, homicide, or manslaughter for an active role in the person’s death.
California’s End of Life Option Act
California enacted the End of Life Option Act in 2016 as a way for physicians to assist patients who wanted to end their lives. A physician can legally prescribe life-ending medications. However, the physician cannot administer the medications.
Patients must meet the conditions set out in the Act for a physician to prescribe life-ending medication legally:
- The person must be at least 18 years of age
- The person must be a resident of California
- The person must have been diagnosed with an irreversible condition that is expected to result in their death within the next six months
- The person must be able to make medical decisions for themselves independently and voluntarily request the life-ending medications
- The person must be able to administer the medications without any assistance
According to the provisions of the Act, physicians who prescribe life-ending medications are not subject to criminal charges for assisted suicide in California.
Are There Defenses to Charges of Assisting Someone in Committing Suicide?
Yes, there are several possible defenses to the crime of aiding someone in committing suicide.
Lack of Intent
A potential defense is that you never intended to assist someone in committing suicide. The statute states that the person must have “deliberately” encouraged, aided, or advised a person to commit suicide. If you never intended to encourage, aid, or advise the person who committed suicide, you cannot be guilty of the crime.
For instance, the person who committed suicide asked to borrow your car to run errands. He uses your vehicle to commit suicide. If you did not know he intended to commit suicide, you could not have aided him in the attempt.
Family members who are distraught about a loved one’s death might blame others for the suicide. They are unable to accept that their family member would take their life.
You might have been a confidant for the person or given the individual advice about personal matters. The family may accuse you of encouraging the person to take his life or giving advice that caused the person to assume there was no other option but suicide.
No Suicide Attempt
You might be guilty of telling someone how to commit suicide or encouraging a person to commit suicide, but without a suicide attempt, you have not committed both legal elements of the crime. The prosecution must prove that you deliberately aided, advised, or encouraged the person to commit suicide, and the person attempted or committed suicide.
End of Life Option Act
If you are a physician, you can use the End of Life Option Act as a defense if someone commits suicide. However, you must ensure that the person meets all criteria under the act before prescribing the medications. You must also be very careful not to assist the person in administering the medication to end their life.
Do I Need a Criminal Lawyer?
If you are charged with a crime, it is wise to seek legal counsel. Learning about your legal rights and the charges you face can help you decide how you want to proceed with your defense. Even when you are innocent, you want to mount a vigorous defense to protect yourself.