While the act of suicide is not a crime in California, helping or encouraging someone to do so is a felony. This law is embodied in California Penal Code 401 PC.
Unless you are a physician prescribing life-ending medication acting in accordance with the End of Life Option Act, if you are convicted of aiding, advising, or encouraging someone to commit suicide—especially if the person succeeds—you may be facing severe criminal penalties, including up to 3 years in prison.
Simply put, this statute prohibits you from helping or encouraging someone to commit suicide. It's a felony crime that carries jail time, but the judge can impose formal probation rather than serving time in jail.
In some situations, a person aids another in suicide, but the attempt fails. When this occurs, the aiding person is not guilty under this law. Instead, they would be charged with attempting to assist in a suicide.
Of note are the common questions about this statute, such as mercy killings, whether suicide itself is a crime, and the difference between assisting someone with suicide and murder.
PC 401 says, “(a) Any person who deliberately aids, advises, or encourages another to commit suicide is guilty of a felony.”
Subsection (b) says that anyone's actions that are “compliant with the provisions of the End of Life Option Act (Part 1.85 (commencing with Section 443) of Division 1 of the Health and Safety Code) will not be prosecuted under this section.”
As noted, committing suicide is not a crime in California. Still, committing a mercy killing (euthanasia) is a crime, such as administering large doses of sleeping pills. Let's review this state-level law in more detail below.
What Does the Law Say?
As noted, the text of PC 401 is very straightforward as it says it's a felony for anyone to deliberately aids, advise, or encourage another to commit suicide.
For prosecutors to convict you of this crime, the prosecutor must establish two essential elements:
- A person committed suicide; and
- You purposely assisted that person or advised/encouraged them to do so.
Note that PC 401 only applies if the person committing suicide successfully does so. Aiding in or encouraging suicide is a different crime than the offense of PC 187 murder.
If you assist someone in a suicide attempt that fails, you won't be guilty under PC 401; however, you may be charged separately with an "attempted crime" under Penal Code 664 PC.
What About the Exception - End of Life Option Act?
In 2016, the End of Life Option Act took effect in California, which provides the only exception to PC 401 by making physician-assisted suicide legal in the state.
A physician is legally allowed to prescribe life-ending medications for a patient only if:
- The patient is 18 or older;
- The patient has a terminal illness with less than six months to live;
- The patient requests the medication; and
- The patient is of sound mind and can take the medication themselves.
What Are Some Examples?
EXAMPLE 1: Tim's wife Beth is suffering from terminal cancer. In pain, she asks Tim to help her end her life because she no longer wishes to suffer. Tim agrees, goes and buys large amounts of sleeping pills, and gives his wife a lethal dose of them. Tim can be charged under PC 401 because he actively assisted in his wife's suicide.
EXAMPLE 2: Dan finds his friend Gary on the rooftop of a tall building, saying he no longer wishes to live and threatening to jump. Dan tells Gary to "go for it," and Gary jumps to his death. Dan can be charged under PC 401 for encouraging Gary to commit suicide.
EXAMPLE 3: Tina asks her friend Lois to sit with her while she takes a lethal dose of sleeping pills so she won't be alone when she dies. Lois attempts to talk her out of it, but Tina takes the pills, and Lois sits with her until the end instead of calling 911 for help.
Although Lois didn't actively encourage the suicide attempt, she might still be charged under PC 401 because prosecutors might interpret her inaction in seeking medical help as "deliberately assisting."
What Are the Related Crimes?
There are a few related crimes for Penal Code 401 assisting in a suicide, including the following:
- Penal Code 664/187 PC – attempted murder;
- Penal Code 187 PC – murder;
- Penal Code 192 PC – voluntary manslaughter.
What Are the Penalties for PC 401?
Violating PC 401 is always charged as a felony in California. If you're convicted, you could face a prison sentence of 16 months, two years, or three years, along with a fine of up to $10,000.
Depending on the circumstances, a judge may impose formal probation as an alternative to prison.
What Are the Defenses Against PC 401?
Being charged under PC 401 doesn't guarantee a conviction.
The most common strategy a California criminal defense lawyer will use to combat these charges will seek to disprove one or more of the elements of the crime as stated above. These defenses are discussed below.
Perhaps we can argue that you did not act deliberately to assist, advise, or encourage suicide. If you were unaware that the person was planning to commit suicide, for example, you could not have aided them in any way.
Likewise, it is not illegal to discuss suicide in general, nor can it be construed as assisting in suicide if you did not specifically encourage the attempt.
Perhaps we can argue that no suicide was attempted or committed. If, for example, you gave someone a lethal amount of pills or a weapon to kill themselves, but they decided against it, you can't be convicted under PC 401.
Perhaps we can argue that your actions qualified for exemption under the End of Life Option Act. Suppose you're a physician charged with illegally assisting the suicide of a patient.
In that case, you can avoid conviction if your attorney can produce medical documentation showing that your actions complied with the End of Life Option Act criteria.
You can contact our law firm for an initial case consultation by phone or using the contact form. Eisner Gorin LLP is based in Los Angeles, CA.