Hazing - California Penal Code §245.6
Penal Code §245.6 is California's law against hazing. It makes it illegal to participate in initiation activities that are likely to result in serious bodily injury to a current, former or prospective student.
No injury actually has to result for the crime of hazing to take place. It is the likelihood of serious physical injury that makes the activity illegal.
Hazing that does not result in serious injury is a misdemeanor. It is punishable by:
- a fine of up to $5,000, and/or
- up to one (1) year in county jail.
When hazing does result in serious bodily injury or death, however, it becomes a California “wobbler” offense. This means it can be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony, in the prosecutor's discretion.
If charged as a felony, hazing can be punished by as much as three (3) years in California state prison.
In addition, hazing of any sort can also subject participants – as well as their schools and organizations -- to a civil lawsuit for monetary damages.
The legal definition of hazing in California
Penal Code §245.6 defines “hazing” as:
“any method of initiation or pre-initiation into a student organization or student body (whether or not officially recognized) that is likely to cause serious bodily injury to a former, current, or prospective student of any school, community college, college, university, or other educational institution in California.”
Customary athletic events and school-sanctioned events are expressly excluded from the definition of “hazing.”
Activities are not hazing if:
-The risk of physical injury is only incidental.
Example: Initiation into the school science club requires identification of microorganisms under a microscope. Although students sometimes cut their fingers on the slides, such injuries are incidental to legitimate activity.
-Physical injury is likely, but is not serious.
Example: Prospective fraternity members are required to engage in activities in the park that include racing on their knees. While this is likely to result in minor abrasions, such injuries are not serious, and therefore the races do not count as hazing.
-The likely injury is to someone other than prospective, current or former students.
Example: A school's basketball coach decides to admit students to the team only if they can hit passersby with rocks from the roof of his house. While this violates a number of laws, Penal Code §245.6 isn't one of them. Because the injuries that are likely to result will be to members of the public rather than students, it doesn't count as hazing.
-The initiation is for a private club or organization.
Example: Some students want to join a private gun club that requires initiates to stand still while an expert marksman fires a bullet into a target over their heads. Although there is a likelihood of serious physical injury to students, the club is not a student organization. Therefore, the initiation isn't hazing.
-The activities involve a customary athletic or school-sanctioned event
Example: Janice is trying out for the cheerleading squad as a “flyer.” The flyer is the person that is thrown or lifted during a stunt. At her tryout, Janice is asked to balance while being held aloft by other cheerleaders. While doing so, she falls and breaks her leg. Because cheerleading is a customary athletic event, however, and balancing is a customary cheerleading activity, the try-out doesn't constitute hazing
-The activity isn't required in order to gain admittance to the club or organization.
Example: Every year, a sorority invites its pledges to participate in a hot dog eating competition. One year, an over-eager pledge eats a hot dog too quickly and chokes to death. Because eating hot dogs was not required for initiation into the sorority, it isn't hazing. (It is also not hazing because, as discussed below, it isn't likely that serious bodily injury will result from eating hot dogs).
The legal definition of “serious bodily injury”
California law defines "serious bodily injury" as a serious physical impairment or condition.
Examples include, but are not limited to:
-loss of consciousness,
-loss or impairment of function of an organ or other body part,
-a wound requiring extensive suturing, or
-serious disfigurement. 
Activities that are likely to result solely in emotional injury or embarrassment do not count as hazing under Penal Code §245.6. 
Example: As part of initiation into a sorority, Lola is required to ring twenty doorbells and say to whoever answers: “I had sex with a dog and I feel so guilty.”
This is likely to be embarrassing to Lola. It might even cause her serious emotional trauma. However, because it is unlikely to result in serious physical injury, it doesn't constitute hazing under Penal Code §245.6. PC, no matter how unpleasant or offensive one may find it.
When is hazing considered likely to cause serious bodily injury?
There are no hard and fast rules about when hazing is likely to result in serious bodily injury. It is a question of fact for the jury.
Penal Code §245.6 was signed into law in 2006. This makes it a relatively recent law, with no reported court decisions for guidance.
However, two recent California hazing cases shed light on some of the activities Penal Code §245.6 is designed to prevent.
In one case, fraternity pledges were required to do calisthenics in a cold basement while they were being blasted with a fan and forced to drink copious amounts of water.
In the other, pledges were deprived of sleep and then forced to hike 14-16 miles on a hot day with inadequate supplies of water.
In both of these cases, one of the pledges died.
But even when nothing bad actually happens as the result of such activities, the mere fact that a serious physical injury was likely can subject those who participate in such activities to felony prosecution.
Who is subject to California Penal Code §245.6?
Penal Code §245.6 applies to anyone who participates in hazing -- not just students. Thus fraternity officials, former fraternity members, school officials and even members of the public can be charged with hazing under §245.6 PC.
However, in order to be charged under the “wobbler” provisions of Penal Code §245.6, the participant must have “personally engaged” in the hazing. Again, there are no cases interpreting what “personally engaged” means.
However, Penal Code §245.6(e) expressly allows a civil lawsuit against not only those who personally engage in hazing, but against:
“any organization to which the student is seeking membership whose agents, directors, trustees, managers, or officers authorized, requested, commanded, participated in, or ratified the hazing.”
Thus the important fact to keep in mind is that anyone involved in hazing in any way is subject to some form of punishment and/or civil liability under Penal Code §245.6 PC.
What is a student organization for purposes of Penal Code 245.6 PC?
To constitute hazing under California Penal Code §245.6, initiation must be into a student organization or student body. An organization need not be officially recognized in order to count.
Example: John and Debra are huge fans of survivalist television shows. They form an unofficial student club called The Survivalists, which meets every weekend on the football field whenever the team has an away game.In order to get into the club, potential members are required to remain on the field for 24 hours straight, clad only in their underwear. Even though the club is not recognized by the school, it is still a student organization. Arguably, spending 24 hours outdoors without clothes during football season is likely to result in serious injury. Thus, John and Debra could conceivably be charged with hazing.
An example of broad application of Penal Code §245.6
Example: Before cheerleading tryouts at a local high school, the teacher in charge of the program tells the captain of the squad to make sure potential new cheerleaders have stamina. She approves the captain's plan to make the new recruits do continuous jumping jacks for half-an-hour straight.
On the day of the try-outs, the heat reaches double digits. While doing the jumping jacks, some of the would-be cheerleaders complain that they feel faint. The captain and her two assistants order them to keep jumping. Two of the girls pass out and are taken to the emergency room, where they are treated for heat exhaustion and dehydration.
Loss of consciousness counts as “serious bodily injury” under Penal Code 245.6. The try-outs constitute a “pre-initiation” into a student organization. They, therefore, constitute “hazing” under Penal Code §245.6.
The cheerleading try-outs result in the following:
- The captain's assistants are charged with misdemeanor hazing for their participation in the try-outs;
- The captain is charged with felony hazing for overseeing the try-outs; and
- The girls sue the teacher and the school for damages because a teacher – who is an agent of the school -- approved/ratified the hazing.
Penalties for hazing under Penal Code §245.6
Hazing that does not result in serious bodily injury is a misdemeanor.
It can be punished by:
-a fine of between one hundred dollars ($100) and five thousand dollars ($5,000), and/or
-up to one (1) year in county jail or misdemeanor probation.
If the hazing results in death or serious bodily injury, it is a California “wobbler” offense and can be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony.
As a misdemeanor, “wobbler” hazing is punished as above.
If charged as a felony, hazing can be punished by:
-up to one (1) year in county jail (or formal, supervised probation),
-16 months, or two (2) or three (3) years in California state prison (or felony probation).
In addition, if you participate in any type of hazing, the victim can sue you for damages in civil court.
Defenses to California hazing charges
You did not participate in any hazing
Example: Colin's fraternity requires potential initiates to go on a short hike in the mountains to observe their approach to teamwork. Colin helps pack water and food for the hike, but doesn't otherwise participate.
At the start of the hike, the organizers decide to make the hike considerably longer, and to only give the pledges one bottle of water each, even though it's a very hot day. One of the pledges suffers cardiac arrest during the hike. Because Colin didn't participate in any of the actions that were likely to cause serious bodily injury, he didn't participate in hazing
The activities weren't part of an initiation or pre-initiation
Example: Let's say that in the above example, the hike was an optional team-building exercise for current fraternity members only. Since it wasn't part of an initiation or pre-initiation, it doesn't constitute hazing under Penal Code §245.6.
The initiation wasn't for a student organization
Example: Rick and Sam are pitchers and co-captains of their school's baseball team. They feel threatened by Terrence, a talented freshman pitcher who is trying out for the team.
One evening after practice, they tell Terrence that if he wants to impress them, he has to complete the Santa Monica Pier's one-mile ocean swim while wearing a one-pound ankle weight on each ankle. Terrence accepts the challenge. While doing the race, he is pulled underwater and nearly drowns.
Rick and Sam are charged with hazing under Penal Code §245.6 PC. But because their challenge to Terrence was personal, and not part of a team initiation, they are not guilty of criminal hazing.
The activities weren't likely to cause serious bodily injury
Example: A fraternity makes each potential member post a video to social media of him taking the ice bucket challenge completely naked on a cold day.
Although physically uncomfortable and potentially embarrassing, the challenge isn't likely to result in serious bodily injury. Therefore, it does not constitute criminal hazing under California Penal Code §245.6
Penal Code 245.6 expressly provides that prosecution for hazing does not prohibit prosecution under any other provision of law.
Other crimes frequently charged in California in connection with hazing include:
Why is it important to fight back against charges of hazing?
If you have been charged with hazing, you could spend time in jail or prison – even if you were ordered to do it or you didn't know you were doing anything wrong.
But there is another, equally important reason to fight hazing charges vigorously.
Penal Code §245.6 allows a hazing victim to sue for damages in civil court. If you are found guilty of hazing -- or even if you plead guilty or no contest to the charges -- a conviction may be used against you in a civil suit.
What can I do if I am charged with hazing?
Retaining an experienced California criminal defense attorney as soon as possible after being charged with hazing can greatly minimize the impact of the charges.
A skilled California attorney may be able to help you:
- Plea bargain to a misdemeanor (if charged with a felony),
- Pay a fine instead of serving time in jail,
- Reduce or eliminate your jail time and/or fine,
- Do probation in lieu of all or part of your sentence, or even
- Get the Penal Code §245.6 charges dismissed entirely.
The veteran criminal defense attorneys at the Kann California Defense Group aggressively and effectively defend clients charged with hazing in Los Angeles, Encino, Century City, Pasadena, Ventura, Santa Clarita, and all other Southern California cities and counties.
If you or someone you know has been charged with hazing or a related offense, contact us for a free and completely confidential consultation today.
Don't let a false accusation or simple mistake take away your rights. Call us or contact us through our website today to speak with an attorney and find out how we can fight for you and possibly have your case dismissed.
 See California Penal Code §243(f).
 The original version of Senate Bill 1454 would have defined “hazing” as conduct which causes, or is likely to cause, bodily danger, physical harm, or personal degradation or disgrace resulting in physical or mental harm to another person…” However, the language relating to non-physical harm did not make it into California Penal Code §245.6 PC as enacted due to concerns about constitutional vagueness. See SB 1454 Bill Analysis by the Senate Committee on Public Safety, April 4, 2006.
 In February 2005, Matthew Carrington underwent hazing in order to gain admission into the Chi Tau fraternity at Chico State University. He died of cardiac dysrhythmia and swelling of the brain and lungs after being forced to drink large amounts of water while doing calisthenics in a sewage-infested 40-degree basement while being doused with water and blasted with fans.
Despite the fact that two pledges – including Carrington -- urinated and vomited on themselves as the result of their treatment – no ambulance was called until it was too late. Five fraternity members eventually pleaded guilty to various criminal charges, including three who pleaded guilty to committing, or being an accessory to, involuntary manslaughter. As a result of Carrington's death, Senate Bill 1454 – known as “Matt's Law” – was enacted as California Penal Code §245.6. Among the changes from its predecessor, Education Code §32050, was the possibility of felony charges in hazing cases.
 On July 1, 2014, a Pi Kappa Phi pledge at Cal State Northridge died of dehydration and hyperthermia after a hike in the Angeles National Forest known as the “Super Awesome Weekend.”
 California Penal Code §245.6(f).