What Is the Criteria for the Insanity Defense in California?

A statue of a blindfolded woman holding up the scales of justice.

California Penal Code Section 25 provides for what is commonly known as the “insanity defense.” Studies show that the insanity defense is used very rarely – in less than 1% of all felony cases in the United States, and even when it is used, it is seldom successful. By pleading “not guilty by reason of insanity,” the defendant admits to committing the act for which they have been accused, but argues that they are not guilty due to very narrowly defined mental deficits.

Understanding the Insanity Defense

The insanity defense is based on the idea that in order for a crime to be committed, a person committing the act must understand that what they are doing is a crime. In other words, they must have intent to commit a crime. Without intent, there is theoretically no crime.

Criminal intent is understood as one of two necessary parts that make up a criminal act. There are two conditions that are considered necessary for there to be a criminal act, which are known by their Latin phrases:

  • Mens rea
  • Actus reus

Mens rea, or guilty mind, requires the intent to commit a wrongful act and encompasses more than just an awareness that an act was wrong; in other words, a crime requires criminal intent. Actus reus, or the act or conduct of a crime, is the actual criminal violation that occurred. Together, these two elements help define the legal requirements for a crime to have been committed and therefore help determine whether someone should be held accountable for their actions.

Since 1994, when the law was amended to exclude mental illness and intoxicating substances as justifications for insanity, California law requires that a defendant must prove an insanity defense “by a preponderance of evidence.” The two circumstances that must be proven include:

  • that the defendant was incapable of “knowing or understanding the nature or quality” of their act
  • that the defendant was incapable of “distinguishing right from wrong” when they committed the act

The defendant has the burden to prove with a preponderance of evidence that they lacked the mental capacity to understand the nature of their crime or distinguish from right and wrong.

What Happens if an Insanity Defense Is Successful?

If a defendant successfully pleads not guilty by reason of insanity, they will not simply be released. Instead, the judge will order the defendant to be involuntarily placed in a psychiatric facility or mental institution rather than prison. This “sentence” can be even longer than if a defendant was convicted and sent to prison.

It is important to work with an experienced criminal defense attorney who can advise you about what the best strategy might be to defend you. In rare cases, the insanity defense may be a viable option, but it is not a defense that should be entered lightly. At the Law Office of Brian C. Andritch, we are committed to protecting the rights of each and every one of our clients.

If you or a loved one have been accused of a crime, contact us online or call us at (559) 484-2112 to schedule a consultation.

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