Assisted Suicide

Committing suicide is not considered a crime in California. However, a failed attempt on ones’ life could still result in legal consequences. If you aided someone in committing suicide, you are guilty of a felony. Facing an assisted suicide offense is serious and it is highly recommended you find a criminal defense attorney to help.

There is a thin-line between assisting someone in committing suicide and murder. An integral part of understanding the difference is knowing how California defines it.

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Defining Assisted Suicide

California details what assisted suicide is under Penal Code 401. It states a person can commit this crime if they deliberately aided, advised, or encouraged another person of committing suicide. The details of this statute include:

  • Someone made the attempt or committed suicide, AND
    • If the attempt failed, both parties involved could face the legal consequences of their actions.
  • The defendant deliberately aided or encouraged this person to do so.
    • Deliberately means you acted on purpose, with the intent to complete your task.
    • Aided means you provided something useful or necessary in achieving these ends.
    • You are also guilty if you advised or encouraged them in their suicide plans.
      • This means you gave your verbal support, help, or assistance or you provided the means.

Are there protections from a PC 401 charge?

There is only one instance in which an individual is excluded from this definition. The PC 401 statute includes a stipulation that protects medical doctors who prescribe life-ending medications.

Under the End of Life Option Act, patients have the right to request medicines that will kill them, and doctors are allowed to prescribe said medications. This law is also referred to as the physician-assisted dying law. Essentially, the only exception to aiding in suicide is if the doctor prescribes the life-ending medicines.

However, the physician may only prescribe these medications. If they physically give the patient the life-ending drugs, pills, or injections, the doctor could face murder charges, such as euthanasia.

What is the criminal act of euthanasia?

Carrying out a mercy killing means you take the life of another person because this person no longer wants to live. This is considered a form of assisted suicide and you can face felony punishments if convicted.

A mercy killing in which certain doses of life-threatening or life-ending medications are administered is known as euthanasia. This crime is considered murder and the potential consequences include facing second-degree murder charges, manslaughter, or criminally negligent homicide.

Here are just a few examples of different ways one can perform euthanasia.

  • Voluntary euthanasia;
    • Someone who provides the method and/or means of death and is actively engaged in the process.
    • Example:
      • A cancer victim is tired of suffering and wishes to end their life. They need the help of the physician to do so. With their consent, the doctor injects a mix of life-ending drugs to speed up the process.
    • This type of euthanasia can be considered a form of assisted suicide under PC 401.
  • Involuntary euthanasia;
    • Killing another person who is not competent or did not consent to it all because you wanted to end their suffering is considered involuntary euthanasia and punishable under PC 187.
    • Example:
      • A terminally ill patient is suffering from extreme physical pain. Their doctor feels bad for that misery and no longer wants them to suffer. They increase the dosage of medications, causing them to overdose and die.
    • Remember, taking another person’s life without their consent, regardless of circumstance is murder.
  • Passive euthanasia;
    • Allowing a terminally ill person to die without physically speeding up the process means you took a passive role.
    • Example:
      • A dad was told his terminally ill son would never wake from his coma. Not wanting his son to live out his comatose state in a hospital bed, he decides to remove the IV drip and feeding tube.

How each form of euthanasia is penalized depends on the specific details of your role in the victims’ death. If you did not have the consent of the victim, you will most likely face a murder charge. If the victim consented, depending on your actions, you could face an assisted suicide charge or a closely related offense instead of murder.

Assisted Suicide vs. Murder, PC 187

Suicide is not considered a crime in California unless there are extenuating circumstances. Usually, the only times when a failed suicide attempt can result in criminal consequences is when a pact was made, but someone survives.

Example:

A suicide pact was made between 2 friends. Both drink a poisonous substance, but only one of them dies. The survivor can be charged with assisted suicide.

A suicide pact is when two or more people agree to kill themselves, and they use a single means to do it. In this example, two friends agree to commit suicide and they both drank the same poison. This agreement means all parties supported, encouraged, or motivated each other to follow through with the act. The survivor will have to face an assisted suicide offense.

The act of maliciously taking another person’s life is murder. The main difference between murder and assisted suicide is in what kind of role you played in the act. PC 187 means you actually took another person’s life whereas assisted suicide means you provided them with the means to do it themselves.

Did you have an active or passive role?

An active role means you participated in their death. A passive role involves you only furnishing the means for someone to kill themselves.

Examples:

Active Role:

Mitt requested his friend Rob help him die, so he wouldn’t have to suffer from cancer. Mitt asked that Rob hold a pillow over his head until he died. If Rob takes this active role, physically holding the pillow over Mitts’ face, restricting oxygen until death, Rob will be guilty of murder, PC 187.

Passive Role:

Mitt wants to kill himself. Rob supplies him with a handgun, knowing that the firearm will be used to commit suicide. If Mitt uses the gun to take his own life, Rob would be guilty of assisted suicide under PC 401.

Closely Related Offense

California PC 664, Attempted Crimes;

You are guilty of this offense if you attempt to commit any crime, but are prevented, intercepted, or fail at completing it.

This means, if someone survives the attempted suicide that you aided them in, you can still face charges for attempting to assist in a suicide.

Associated Offenses

California PC 187, murder;

You commit this crime if you kill another person or fetus and you do so with malice aforethought or wanton disregard for their life. In other words, you knew your actions could result in the possibility of their death.

California PC 664/187, attempted murder;

If you intended to kill another person and you took direct steps or overt-acts towards those ends, but the intended victim survives, you are guilty of attempted murder.

California PC 192, voluntary manslaughter;

This crime is committed if you kill another human being in the heat of passion or during a sudden fight. You can also face this charge if you kill someone because you had an honest, but irrational or unreasonable belief in the need to defend yourself.

California PC 192(b), involuntary manslaughter;

Unintentionally killing another person, due to your own negligence, while committing a felony, or due to a lawful act that could result in someone’s death is covered under this statute. This is also known as criminally negligent homicide.

The Prosecution

There are only two facts the prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt to get a conviction for assisted suicide. Also known as elements of the crime, these factors are:

  • Someone committed suicide or made the attempt to commit suicide, AND
  • You aided, advised, or encouraged them in committing the act.

Indirect versus direct involvement

Helping does not necessarily mean you would have to be physically involved in the act. There is a difference between direct aid and indirect aid. Providing physical support for committing the act of suicide is considered direct assistance. Indirect aid means you provided encouragement, advised them, or gave the means, such as the tools or equipment necessary to commit the act.

What is encouragement?

If someone admits they are going to commit suicide and you provide verbal support for their decision, you are guilty of encouraging them to act on it.

What kind of advice?

Your friend states they want to kill themselves, but need advice on the best way to do it and you oblige. You explain how a gunshot to the head or swallowing a lethal dose of sleeping pills would be effective.

What are the means?

A friend that wants to kill themselves does not have the means to do so. You supply them with the tools to act on it. Such tools can include a weapon, drugs, or contact/access to someone they can hire to do the job.

What is malicious encouragement? Do your intentions matter?

Taking advantage of another person’s depressed mental state by making malicious statements or providing verbal motivations could result in a PC 401 charge. In this case, even if you did not intend to cause their death, if your verbal encouragement was enough to send them over the edge, you can still be held accountable.

Example of who can be charged:

Paris was taking antidepressants and was having suicidal thoughts. After their divorce, her ex-husband would send her egregious texts, such as:

  • “You should just kill yourself.”
  • “No one will miss you if you do it.”
  • “Just do it.”
  • “Use the birthday gift I gave you and say goodbye.”
  • “Take all your pills, drink some wine, and go swimming.”

After weeks of getting his malicious text messages, Paris finally follows through with her suicidal thoughts. She took all his suggestions into account, ingested all of her pills, drank a bottle of wine, and fatally shot herself while taking a bath. The horrible messages her ex-husband sent are considered persuasive and encouraged her to follow through with taking her own life. He could face an assisted suicide offense.

What if he claims he had no intention of aiding her in committing suicide?

Regardless of his intentions, the facts are:

  • He knew about her fragile mental state,
  • Yet, he urged her to take her own life,
  • He even advised her in several ways to commit suicide.
    • The gift he referred to was a handgun he gave her when they were together. This raises the question, if he didn’t remind her about the handgun, would she have used it?
    • He essentially told her to drown herself by suggesting she take “all” of her medication, consume alcohol, and go swimming.

Legal Defense

These allegations can haunt you for the rest of your life. You should not have to face them alone. Getting the help of a criminal defense lawyer could mean the difference between facing the maximum penalties or gaining the best possible outcome.

An expert defense attorney will be familiar with the most common legal defenses used to challenge an assisted suicide accusation. Here are just a few examples of these defenses.

Are you protected under the End of Life Option Act?

If you are a medical practitioner and were only fulfilling the request of your patient, you should not be guilty of PC 401. However, this End of Life Option Act only protects physicians who lawfully prescribed life-ending medication. It does not protect them if they physically gave the necessary medications to the patient or administered said medications themselves on the patients’ behalf.

Did you act deliberately?

If you did not intend to assist in suicide, your actions would not be considered deliberate and you should not be guilty of PC 401.

Example:

Carl found out he had lung cancer and wants to die. His roommate, Lars, comes home from the shooting range and leaves his gun on the kitchen counter. Carl picks up the gun, goes to his bedroom, and shoots himself in the chest.

Although the gun belonged to Lars, he would not be guilty of assisted suicide. He did not know Carl wanted to commit suicide nor did he purposely leave his gun out for Carl to achieve those ends.

Did you provide aid or encouragement for the act?

The law clearly states you must have provided help or encouragement to be guilty of assisting in suicide. If these factors are not present, you should not be guilty of PC 401.

Example:

Stevie was depressed because his girlfriend, Elaine, broke-up with him. He told his roommate, Jon, he wanted to drive off a cliff. Jon laughed, thinking he was joking and assured him the heartache would pass. Weeks later Stevie asks to borrow Jon’s car. Stevie actually drives off of a cliff and dies.

Jon was not aware of Stevie’s mental state and honestly did not think he planned to kill himself. Even though Jon’s vehicle was used as a means for Stevie to commit suicide, Jon did not provide any assistance or encouragement in the act.

Penalties for PC 401

If convicted of assisted suicide, you face:

Felony;

Formal (felony) probation,

A potential three-year state prison sentence, and/or

Fines as high as ten thousand dollars.

Cases in which the victim survives means you could face an attempted assisted suicide offense, PC 664/401. If convicted, you face;

Felony;

Formal (felony) probation,

A possible 18 months in state prison, and/or

A potential fine of five thousand dollars.

Enhanced Penalties

If you assisted in more than one suicide or if you acted against the wishes of the suicide victim you will face harsher consequences. Any case with aggravating factors will also result in higher fines and longer prison terms. 

Convictions for this type of felony can also result in losing your professional license. For instance, as a medical practitioner, you could lose your license to practice medicine.

Penalties for Similar Offenses

California PC 664, Attempted Crimes;

If convicted, you face half the sentence and fines of the actual crime you attempted.

If the crime you committed carries a life sentence in prison or the death penalty you face:

A potential 9-year state prison sentence. 

Further examples;

The crime committed carries a 6-year prison sentence and ten thousand dollars in fines, you face:

A potential 3-year prison sentence, and

Five thousand dollars in fines.

California PC 187, murder;

Felony (1st-degree murder);

25 years to life in state prison.

Felony (2nd-degree murder);

15 years to life in state prison.

Felony (Capital murder);

Life in state prison without the possibility of parole.

California PC 664/187, attempted murder;

A strike under California’s Three Strikes Law

Felony (1st-degree attempted murder);

Life in prison with the possibility of parole.

Felony (2nd-degree attempted murder);

5, 7, or 9 years in state prison.

California PC 192, voluntary manslaughter;

Felony;

Formal (felony) probation,

As long as one year in county jail,

3, 6, or 11 years in state prison,

A strike under California’s Three Strikes Law,

Potential fines of up to ten thousand dollars,

Loss of gun-rights,

Court-ordered anger management classes, and

Potential counseling sessions.

California PC 192(b), involuntary manslaughter;

Felony;

A possible strike on your record,

2, 3, or 4 years in county jail, and

Fines as high as ten thousand dollars.

Additional Consequences

It’s important to note, if convicted of any of the crimes listed above, you could also face the following repercussions.

  • Family and/or Victim restitution;
    • The alleged victim is also within their rights to sue you for financial damages.
    • If the victim died as a result of your actions, their family is within their rights to sue you as well.
    • You could be held responsible for any medical bills, wage losses, or legal fees they accumulated as a result of your actions.
  • As much as ten thousand dollars in fines;
    • Court fines increase based on the severity of the crimes, or
    • If you are convicted of more than one offense.
  • Immigration consequences;
    • Depending on whether the crime is considered one of great moral turpitude or an aggravated felony, you could face
      • Deportation, and
      • Deemed inadmissible.
        • In other words, you would lose your immigration status and not be allowed back into the country.
  • Gun Rights;
    • If convicted of a felony, you lose your gun rights.
    • California has a felon with a firearm law, PC 29800.
      • This means you cannot legally own, purchase, or possess a firearm if you have a felony on your criminal record.

We Can Help

Are you located in San Diego, Orange County, or Los Angeles and need legal assistance? If you or someone you love is facing an assisted suicide charge or related offense, contact the Law Offices of Anna R. Yum. Attorney Yum understands what is at stake and knows how hard the prosecution will try to get a conviction. As a highly trusted, award-winning criminal defense lawyer, you can count on an aggressive fight for your rights and your future.

Schedule your free consultation at no obligation by calling 619-233-4433. You can also use our online contact form. Don’t delay your defense, simply give us a call to get the legal help you need.

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