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Penal Code 191 PC | Petit Treason Abolished

Penal Code 191 PC – Petit Treason Abolished

California Penal Code 191 PC abolished the common law crime of petit treason. Petit treason was when a wife killed her husband or a servant killed his master. It was considered a worse form of murder. But now, under PC 191, if a wife kills her husband or a servant kills his master, it is simply murder or manslaughter. There is no special crime of petit treason anymore.

What is Petit Treason?

At common law, petit treason was considered a worse form of murder. There were three situations where a homicide was petit treason:

  • When a servant killed his master
  • When a wife killed her husband
  • When a clergyman killed his prelate

These crimes were considered worse than regular murder because they violated the loyalty and allegiance that was expected in these relationships. So they were punished more harshly than other murders.

For example, at common law, the punishment for petit treason by a man was to be drawn and hanged. Whereas the punishment for regular murder was just hanging. And for a woman who committed petit treason, the punishment was to be burned at the stake.

Petit Treason Abolished in California

California Penal Code 191 PC abolished the common law crime of petit treason. California enacted this law back in 1872. The legislature believed it was outdated for certain murders to be treated differently just because of the relationship between the victim and killer.

So in California today, if a wife kills her husband or a servant kills his master, it is simply murder or manslaughter under PC 187. There is no special crime of petit treason anymore. And the punishment is the same as for any other murder or manslaughter.

Legal Definitions

Let’s take a closer look at some of the key terms related to this California law abolishing petit treason:

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Murder

Murder is the unlawful killing of a human being with malice aforethought, per Penal Code 187 PC. First degree murder is generally premeditated killing or killing during certain felonies. Second degree murder is any other type of murder done with malice.

Manslaughter

Manslaughter is an unlawful killing without malice, per Penal Code 192 PC. There are two types: voluntary manslaughter is killing in a sudden quarrel or heat of passion. Involuntary manslaughter is killing through criminal negligence.

Common Law

Common law refers to the legal system that originated in England in the Middle Ages. It relies on judges’ prior decisions as the basis for deciding new cases. California largely abolished common law crimes by statute.

Precedent

Precedent refers to a court decision that is considered as authority for deciding subsequent similar cases. For example, California court decisions interpreting PC 191 help clarify that petit treason is abolished.

Legal Defenses

Since petit treason itself is abolished, there are no specific defenses to that crime anymore. However, there are various legal defenses that could apply if a wife or servant kills and gets charged with murder or manslaughter.

Self-Defense

Acting in self-defense is a complete defense to murder or manslaughter in California. If the wife or servant reasonably believed they were in imminent danger, and used reasonable force, they can argue self-defense.

Accident

If the death was a true accident, with no criminal negligence, then there is no crime at all. For example, if the wife accidentally killed her husband while cleaning a gun.

False Accusations

If there is evidence the charges are completely false or mistaken, then a good defense attorney can get the case dismissed for lack of evidence.

Penalties

Since petit treason itself is abolished in California, there are no penalties for that specific crime. But if a wife or servant kills and gets convicted of murder or manslaughter, here are the potential sentences:

  • First degree murder – 25 years to life in California prison
  • Second degree murder – 15 years to life
  • Voluntary manslaughter – 3, 6, or 11 years in prison
  • Involuntary manslaughter – 2, 3, or 4 years in county jail

Related Offenses

There are a few other crimes under California law that are related to or overlap with this abolished crime of petit treason.

Domestic Violence

If a wife kills her husband, it could potentially be charged as domestic violence murder under Penal Code 13700 PC. This can lead to enhanced penalties.

Elder Abuse

If an elderly master is killed by a servant, it could potentially be charged as elder abuse homicide under Penal Code 368 PC. Again this can mean harsher punishment.

Example Case

Here is an example of a California case that cited Penal Code 191 and the abolishment of petit treason (although the case itself did not involve spousal or servant murder):

People v. Snyder (1888) 75 Cal. 323.

Defendant was convicted of murdering a man who had been intimate with his wife. On appeal he argued it should be considered manslaughter due to provocation. But the Court affirmed the murder conviction, citing PC 191 and noting that California has abolished the common law doctrine of petit treason that once might have justified greater provocation.

Hiring an Attorney

As we can see, the abolished crime of petit treason has little relevance to prosecutions today in California. But if you are ever charged with murdering your spouse or master, it is critical to retain an experienced California homicide attorney. A skilled lawyer can evaluate your case and build an aggressive defense to get your charges reduced or dismissed.

 

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