In popular lexicon, mayhem usually refers to deliberate disorder: “It was mayhem!” or “She caused a lot of mayhem as she plowed through the crowd.” But mayhem also has a legal meaning. In California, it is a crime under Penal Code sections 203 and 205. The crime of mayhem is committed when a person intentionally causes the permanent disfigurement or disablement of another person. The elements of mayhem sound like something written in another age: “Every person who unlawfully and maliciously deprives a human being of a member of his body, or disables, disfigures, or renders it useless, or cuts or disables the tongue, or puts out an eye, or slits the nose, ear, or lip, is guilty of mayhem.” (Penal Code section 203.) Even though the code section lists these particular injuries, mayhem occurs when the violator intentionally removes any part of another person’s body or makes useless some part of another person’s body.

Mayhem is distinguished from assault in that assault merely an “unlawful attempt, coupled with a present ability, to commit a violent injury on the person of another.” (Penal Code section 240.) One can be charged with assault without causing an actual injury whereas mayhem requires an actual injury. While the injury caused by an act of mayhem need not be serious bodily injury, it must be great bodily injury. That may sound like the same thing but there is a legal distinction. Serious bodily injury includes a list of qualified injuries whereas great bodily injury does not. Any injury that is “a significant or substantial physical injury” is a great bodily injury. (Penal Code section 12022.7, subd.(f).)

Mayhem may be committed even when the intention wasn’t to disfigure or disable but that is the result. All that is required is the intent to commit the wrongful act. So, for example, a person might accost someone with a knife during a robbery. While the perpetrator had no intent to use the knife other than to create fear, a struggle ensues, and the perpetrator stabs the victim in the eye causing the victim to lose sight in that eye. This offense could be charged as robbery and mayhem.

Mayhem requires that the disfigurement or disabling injury be “permanent.” However, even if the injury can be surgically or medically repaired, if the injury would be permanent without medical intervention, the crime is still mayhem. Furthermore, an injury that is seriously disabling, but not permanent may be sufficient to amount to mayhem. (A victim's broken ankle was "disabled seriously" and "the disability . . . was sufficiently disabling . . . for an extended period of time to amount to mayhem. People v. Thomas (1979) 96 Cal.App.3d 507, 512.). But unlike a disabling injury, a disfiguring injury must be permanent, although not necessarily visible (and even if the disfigurement can be corrected through medical intervention, it is still considered permanent for purposes of the crime of mayhem).

Defenses to a Charge of Mayhem

An experienced Orange County mayhem defense attorney will carefully review the charges and all discovery (evidence) provided by the prosecution in order to identify any potential defense to the charge.

Some common defenses include:

  • The injury was not permanent. For example, Jack threw a brick at Jill chipping her tooth. A dentist was able to repair Jill’s tooth in a quick office visit. Because the disfigurement was temporary, it is not mayhem. On the other hand, if the brick had knocked out Jill’s two front teeth and she had to get implants, that might be considered mayhem because the injury was permanently disabling even though it was corrected with medical intervention.
  • The injury was not disfiguring. Manny and Moe got in an argument. Manny intentionally punched Moe in the nose. While Moe’s nose was swollen and out of joint, his nose returned to normal in a few weeks. On the other hand, if Manny had broken Moe’s nose causing him to have a permanent knot on the bridge of his nose, that may be charged as mayhem.
  • The injury was not intentionally caused. Dorothy and Ms. Gulch were having an argument about a dog. Ms. Gulch got on her bike and as she started to leave, she rode her bike too close to Dorothy, accidentally knocking Dorothy over. Dorothy broke her hip and had to get a hip replacement. Ms. Gulch did not commit mayhem because she did not intend to hit Dorothy with her bike. However, if Ms. Gulch took off on her bike in a threatening manner toward Dorothy causing Dorothy to lose balance (even if Ms. Gulch did not really intend to hit Dorothy with the bike), she could be charged with mayhem.
  • Self-defense of self or others. Conrad reasonably believed he was in imminent danger when Sally lunged at him with what turned out to be a toy knife. But believing it was a real knife, Conrad pushed Sally causing her to fall face first on a large rock, which resulted in a permanent scar across her cheek. On the other hand, if the evidence shows that Conrad knew the knife was a toy, he would not be able to defend a mayhem charge on self-defense grounds.

Mayhem is a very serious crime and is always charged as a felony. A conviction may be punished by two, four, or eight years in prison. Upon a conviction, a skilled mayhem defense attorney will argue for a grant of felony probation or a shortened sentence with felony probation. Aggravated mayhem, which is found when the act of mayhem is accompanied by “extreme indifference to the physical or psychological well-being of [the victim]” can be punished by life imprisonment. (Penal Code section 205.)

Orange County Mayhem Defense Attorney William Weinberg Can Help

If you are charged with mayhem, it is important to consult with a criminal defense attorney right away. A skilled defense attorney will explore all possible defenses and the possibility of dismissal or reduction of the charge. Orange County mayhem defense attorney William Weinberg has defended hundreds of individuals charged with mayhem and related crimes in his 25 plus years of practice. His goal is always to vigorously defend his client and achieve the most successful outcome possible. Contact him for a free and confidential consultation to review your matter by call him at (949) 474-8008 or by emailing him at

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