Generally speaking, under California law, truly accidental death is not a crime. However, attempting to conceal an accidental death is a crime. Under California Penal Code 152 PC, it's a misdemeanor offense to conceal or attempt to conceal someone's accidental death.
In other words, this statute makes it a crime for someone to conceal, or attempt to conceal, an accidental death. To conceal includes hiding a body, destroying evidence, or hiding the items or instruments causing the accidental death.
PC 152 says, “(a) Every person who, having knowledge of an accidental death, actively conceals or attempts to conceal that death, shall be guilty of a misdemeanor punishable by imprisonment in a county jail for not more than one year, or by a fine of not less than $1,000 nor more than $10,000, or by both that fine and imprisonment.
(b) For purposes of this section, “to actively conceal an accidental death” means any of the following:
(1) To perform an overt act that conceals the body or directly impedes the ability of authorities or family members to discover the body.
(2) To directly destroy or suppress evidence of the actual physical body of the deceased, including, but not limited to, bodily fluids or tissues.
(3) To destroy or suppress the actual physical instrumentality of death.”
If you're convicted of this crime, you could face fines of up to $10,000 and up to one year in jail. Let's review this state law in more detail below.
PC 152 Explained
Under California Penal Code 152 PC, concealing an accidental death occurs when someone who knows an accidental death actively covers it or attempts to do so.
Concealing an accidental death can include performing an overt act intending to hide the death, failing to report the death to authorities, or altering or destroying evidence related to the death.
Under California law, accidental death is defined as death resulting from unexpected or unforeseen circumstances.
A death must not have resulted from another person's intentional act or negligence to be considered accidental under the law. Accidental deaths can include, but are not limited to:
- Traffic collisions;
- Industrial accidents;
- Accidents involving firearms.
Specifically, concealing an accidental death can involve any/all of the following behaviors:
- Taking overt actions to conceal the body or directly impede the ability of family members or authorities to find the body;
- Destroying or suppressing evidence of the actual physical body (e.g., body parts, fluids, etc.); or
- Destroying or suppressing the means that caused the accidental death (e.g., a firearm for a gun death, a ladder in a falling death).
To convict you of this crime, prosecutors must prove two key elements:
- You knew the accidental death of another person; and
- You took overt actions to conceal the death.
What Are Some Examples?
EXAMPLE 1: Arnold has a gun that accidentally goes off while he is trying to clean it, killing him. His brother Tom comes home and finds Arnold's body. Fearing he will be accused of a crime, Tom hides the body in a freezer, buries the gun in the backyard, and bleaches the blood stain off the floor. As a result, Tom can be charged under PC 152 for actively concealing an accidental death.
EXAMPLE 2: Ted is hiking through the woods when he discovers a human corpse, dead of an apparent fall down a hill. Instead of contacting the authorities, Ted takes his camp shovel, covers the body with dirt, and hikes away. Ted could be charged under PC 152.
What Are the Related Crimes?
There are a few California crimes that are related to Penal Code 152 concealing an accidental death, including the following:
- Destruction of evidence defined under Penal Code 135 PC: Destroying or concealing evidence that you know relevant to a court case or investigation.
- Accessory after the fact defined under Penal Code 32 PC: Willfully harboring, aiding, or abetting a known felon to keep the felon from being captured or prosecuted.
- Involuntary manslaughter defined under Penal Code 192(b) PC: Causing a person's death through some form of negligence (i.e., not "unexpected," as in an accidental death).
What Are the Penalties for PC 152?
Concealing an accidental death is a misdemeanor offense. If you're convicted of this crime, you can face fines between $1000 and $10,000 and up to one year in county jail.
Based on the circumstances of the case, the judge can opt to impose summary probation as an alternative to jail time.
What Are the Defenses for PC 152?
Fortunately, a California criminal defense lawyer can use several common defenses to defend against Penal Code 152 PC charges, discussed below.
Perhaps we can argue that you did not know about accidental death. To be convicted under PC 152, prosecutors must demonstrate that you knew of the death and took willful steps to conceal it.
Your attorney may argue that you didn't have such knowledge and could not have attempted to conceal the death. In Example 2 above, if Ted had hiked past the body without noticing it, he had no knowledge of the death.
Perhaps we can argue that you did not take overt steps to conceal the death. Your attorney may claim that while you were aware of the death, you never attempted to hide it or cover it up in any way. As a result, your actions do not constitute concealing an accidental death under Penal Code 152 PC.
Perhaps we can argue that you acted under duress. For example, you may have actively concealed the body because someone threatened to harm you or your family if you didn't cooperate.
If you are accused of violating Penal Code 152, concealing an accidental death, contact our law firm to review the case details and legal options. You can contact us by phone or by using the contact form. Eisner Gorin LLP is based in Los Angeles, CA.