Suicide isn’t an easy discussion topic for most people, but it’s also subject to several myths when it comes to the law. For example, many people think it is a crime to kill yourself in California and that you can be charged with attempted suicide if your attempt fails. In actuality, suicide (and attempted suicide) is legal, and assisted suicide has been legal since 2016. Even so, it remains a crime to encourage someone to kill themselves or help someone do so in a way that falls outside the scope of the assisted suicide law.
California’s Assisted Suicide Law
Assisted suicide has been legal in California since the right-to-die law was enacted in 2016. This law allows terminally ill patients to seek aid in killing themselves. However, this law only covers a slim number of suicides, as the patient must be:
- Terminally ill (their disease must be expected to result in death within six months)
- Still in full control of their faculties
- Able to take the medication on their own
The only assistance someone can give someone trying to kill themselves is that a doctor may provide the patient with the medication but cannot administer it. To ensure things are done above board, another doctor must approve the decision, and two witnesses must be present at the time of the suicide —and at least one of the witnesses cannot be a family member.
In other words, most people who help someone kill themselves are not covered by the state’s death with dignity law. The law expires in ten years if not renewed, so it may not even be in effect after 2026.
Is Aiding a Suicide a Crime in California?
Yes, when it falls outside the scope of the right-to-die law, aiding or encouraging suicide is a crime under California Penal Code section 401 (PC). However, under the law, a death is only considered “suicide” if the person who wanted to die was actually the one who took or attempted to take their own life. If you were the one who killed or tried to kill the victim, even if they begged you to do so, you could be charged with murder instead.
In suicide cases, there is often a fine line in finding the individual who actually took the individual’s life. But essentially, if you provided the tools or helped someone plan their suicide, you can be charged with aiding suicide under 401 (PC). If you gave the person the drugs or helped slice a knife or pull a trigger, then you technically murdered them under 187 (PC).
What is Considered to be Encouraging Suicide?
“Encouraging” suicide can be an even more difficult charge to define. Obviously, if someone playing a multiplayer game online tells another player to “go kill yourself,” they are just practicing their First Amendment right to free speech. But if a wife tells her terminally ill husband that she thinks he might be better off ending his life rather than suffering for the next few years, she could be considered to be encouraging suicide. That being said, merely discussing the idea of suicide is not a crime; someone must actively encourage another person to take their own life to be charged under 401 (PC).
To make matters more complex, if someone kills themselves primarily because of what you said, you can go to jail for involuntary manslaughter if the prosecutors believe you acted recklessly enough to drive someone to suicide. If you have been accused of encouraging someone to kill themselves, talk with an attorney before speaking with the police, or you may say something that could hurt your defense.
What are the Penalties for 401 (PC)?
If you have been accused of aiding or encouraging someone to commit suicide, you will face felony charges and can be sentenced to up to three years imprisonment. If the person failed to die, you can still be charged with attempting to aid someone in suicide, which means you can face half of that sentence.
Defenses to Charges Under 401 (PC)
The best defense to these charges will vary dramatically based on the specific circumstances of the case. Always talk to a defense attorney to find the right strategy for your situation before speaking with the police.
Sometimes, your best option will be to argue that you were not attempting to help the individual kill themselves. If, for example, someone took medication you provided to try to end their life, you could argue that while you gave them a large quantity of painkillers, you did not mean for them to use them all at once and provided them instead to aid with pain relief.
If you are a doctor who has been charged with aiding a suicide, you may be able to show that you met all the legal requirements for the state’s Death in Dignity Act and, therefore, have not violated the law.
Alternatively, if the individual is still alive, you may sometimes be able to argue that they did not attempt to commit suicide. Even if you encouraged them to kill themselves and provided them with the tools to do so, you did not violate the law if they never attempted to take their own life.
In many cases, those accused of encouraging suicide are victims of false allegations by those who simply cannot believe their loved one would commit suicide without being talked into the act by someone else. Without text messages, records of online conversations, reliable witness testimony, or another form of evidence to show you suggested the deceased commit suicide, you should not be found guilty of this crime.
In some murder cases, your attorney may work to reduce the charges to aiding a suicide because those charged with this offense will face dramatically lower penalties.
When is Attempted Suicide a Crime?
While you cannot face criminal charges for attempted suicide since it is not a crime, you can be forcefully committed to a behavioral health facility if it is determined that you are a threat to yourself or others. Beyond that, you can face criminal charges for attempted suicide if you committed any crimes while trying to end your life.
For example, you can easily face reckless driving charges if you drive the wrong way down the freeway, hoping to get in a crash that will take your life. If you kill someone else as part of your suicide attempt, you could even face murder charges.
As you can see, there are many crimes related to suicide and attempted suicide in California, even if the act is technically legal under state law. If you have been accused of any crime related to your own or someone else’s suicide attempt, please schedule a free consultation with Peter Liss by calling (760) 643-4050 or (858) 486-3024.