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What is a Heat of Passion Defense?

Posted by Philip Israels | May 03, 2024

A “heat of passion” is generally described as killing another person during a sudden quarrel or being provoked and acting rashly and under the influence of intense emotion that obscures your reasoning or judgment.

Also, the provocation would have caused an average person to act rashly without due deliberation from passion rather than judgment. The heat of passion does not require anger, rage, or any specific emotion; rather, it could be any violent or intense emotion that causes someone to act without deliberation and reflection.

 Heat of Passion
A “heat of passion” defense might get murder charges reduced to voluntary manslaughter.

However, notably, if enough time passed between the provocation and the killing for a person of average disposition to “cool down” and regain their reasoning and judgment, then the killing is not reduced to voluntary manslaughter (CALCRIM 570).

Simply put, the provocation must be so influential that it would cause an average person in the same situation to react emotionally rather than with sound judgment, which is an objective standard. 

The heat of passion defense might be available for someone accused of committing a crime in California. It's primarily based on the principle that someone who acts in the heat of passion, without sufficient time to cool off, and with reasonable actions necessary for self-defense should not be liable for the crime.

However, for the heat of passion defense to be successful, it must be proven that there was an immediate provocation and that the person acted in response without sufficient time for their passion to cool down.

Suppose the heat of passion defense is successful in court. In that case, it will typically result in a reduced charge or a lighter sentence. Courts recognize that while the defendant's actions were wrong, there was a legitimate reason.

How is Heat of Passion Used in Murder Cases?  

Suppose you were charged with California Penal Code 187 PC murder. In that case, if convicted, you are facing severe penalties, such as the following:

  • First-degree murder is 25 years to life in state prison.  
  • Second-degree murder carries a sentence of 15 years to life.

Often, criminal defense attorneys try to get murder charges reduced to Penal Code 192(a) voluntary manslaughter, which carries a lighter sentence of one to 11 years. 

Thus, a common method of reducing the PC 187 charge is using the heat of passion defense, which is considered a mitigating factor. It negates the element of malice in a PC 187 murder prosecution.

Sometimes, there are several defenses to murder charges, which could reduce it to a lesser crime. A “heat of passion” or “sudden quarrel” defense could potentially reduce murder to voluntary manslaughter with lesser, based on the following:

  • You claim you killed someone because of a sudden quarrel or
  • You were provoked and acted harshly under the influence of intense emotion that obscured your judgment and
  • The provocation would have caused an average person to act rashly and without due deliberation.

For example, suppose a man comes home and finds his wife with another man. In response, he becomes so enraged and uncontrollable he shoots and kills both of them. In that case, he might be able to claim heat of passion and get the district attorney to reduce the PC 187 murder charges to PC 192(a) voluntary manslaughter.

How is Heat of Passion Defined?

Several courts have defined the heat of passion. In U.S. v. Browner, the Fifth Circuit defined heat of passion as “a passion of fear or rage in which the defendant loses his normal self-control as a result of circumstances that would provoke such a passion in an ordinary person, but which did not justify the use of deadly force.”

Another definition of the heat of passion is “an agitated state of mind (as anger or terror) prompted by provocation sufficient to overcome the ability of a reasonable person to reflect on and control their actions. Also called heat of blood, the heat of passion on sudden provocation, hot blood, sudden heat, sudden heat of passion, sudden passion.”

In simple terms, a crime of passion is committed under extreme rage or emotional disturbance or when provoked. A killing under the heat of passion is done without premeditation, which lessens the severity of the case.  

Heat of Passion – Quick Facts

  • The term "heat of passion" is an intense emotional state that someone might experience in response to a significant provocation.
  • In the context of law, heat of passion is used as a defense strategy in homicide cases as a defining element in a crime of passion.
  • Heat of passion means a defendant was not in a rational state of mind at the time of the act due to extreme emotional disturbance or agitation, and there was no premeditation (malice aforethought) to commit murder.
  • When successful, it will typically result in a reduction of charges from murder to voluntary manslaughter. 

What's the Difference Between Murder and Manslaughter?

Murder and manslaughter charges in California are both serious involving someone's death, but these crimes are different based on the presence or absence of "malice aforethought." Consider the following:

  • California Penal Code 187 PC murder is defined as the unlawful killing of a human being or fetus with malice aforethought, which means the act was committed intentionally or with a reckless disregard for human life.
  • California Penal Code 192(a) PC voluntary manslaughter involves the intentional killing of someone but without malice aforethought. This often occurs in the heat of passion or during a sudden quarrel.

How Does this Legal Defense Work?

Notably, when the heat of passion is argued, it negates the critical element of malice aforethought. It says a defendant acted not out of a deliberate intent to kill someone but in a spontaneous reaction to a provocation that was so intense that it caused them to lose self-control.

To successfully use this legal defense in a Penal Code 187 PC murder case, a California criminal defense attorney must establish the following:

  • There was an adequate provocation. Defendants must be provoked by a situation that would cause a reasonable person to react without due deliberation, but not necessarily an illegal act. The provocative conduct by the victim may be physical or verbal, but the conduct must be sufficiently provocative that it would cause an ordinary person of average disposition to act rashly or without due deliberation and reflection.
  • There was heat of passion. Defendants must have acted under the influence of intense emotions obscuring reasonable judgment. The passion must be so high that it would cause a reasonable person to act aggressively without reflection.
  • There was an immediate reaction. There must be no "cooling-down" period between the provocation and the killing. A person could have regained control if a reasonable amount of time had passed, but this defense may not stand.
  • There was a causal connection. The lawyer must establish there was a causal link between the provocation, the heat of passion, and the killing.

Are there Still Legal Penalties? 

Yes. It should be noted that a successful heat of passion defense is not a complete defense, and it is not the same as a successful claim of self-defense.

Thus, you will still likely be charged with Penal Code 192(a) PC voluntary manslaughter and possibly convicted. Notably, when you use the heat of passion defense, it requires that you admit to killing someone.  

However, a successful heat of passion defense can avoid a conviction for PC 187 murder, which carries severe penalties. It's a path to mitigate the charges and potential sentence in your homicide case. Contact our law firm for more information or a free case review. Cron, Israels & Stark has offices in Los Angeles, CA.

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About the Author

Philip Israels

Phil Israels was raised in California's Central Valley where he still has family. After graduating from the University of California at Berkeley where he was a member for Zeta Beta Tau fraternity and studied Economics, he continued his education...

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