crime of passion

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In criminal law, a crime of passion is a crime committed in the "heat of passion" or in response to provocation, as opposed to a crime that was premeditated or deliberated. Provocation serves as a partial defense to a charge of murder because while it does not completely excuse the defendant of the killing, it can downgrade the degree of the crime, and therefore the associated punishment. For example, successfully showing that a killing occurred in the heat of passion may lower a murder charge to a manslaughter charge. 

The provocation defense serves to recognize that some reactions can be provoked spontaneously, without giving one the opportunity to reflect on their actions, and, therefore, the required mental state of premeditation or deliberation is not met. 

The provocation behind a crime of passion must be that which is calculated to inflame the passions of a reasonable person. For example, assault on the defendant after the sudden discovery of spousal adultery have traditionally been regarded as sufficient provocation, while mere words have not.

As an alternative to the heat of passion standard, some jurisdictions apply the standard of extreme emotional disturbance. The Model Penal Code (section 210.3) states that a murder is downgraded to manslaughter when it was "committed under the influence of extreme mental or emotional disturbance for which there is reasonable explanation or excuse." It is worth noting that while this standard is more flexible than the provocation standard, it still falls under a reasonable person standard.

In New York, the offense of murder can be downgraded to manslaughter if it was found that the defendant acted in a heat of passion, which negates the element of malice required for murder. "Heat of passion" requires an inquiry as to whether the defendant was "obscured or disturbed" by passion that would cause a reasonable person to act from passion rather than judgment. Furthermore, for a defendant to have acted in the heat of passion, he or she must have succumbed to adequate provocation.

California has articulated the standard to include a subjective aspect. Specifically, the defendant must not only have been adequately provoked into the heat of passion, but the resulting crime must have been done in response to the provocation. As a result, this standard denies the defense to those who kill out of revenge or a reason unrelated to the provocation.

[Last updated in July of 2022 by the Wex Definitions Team]