Domestic violence is a term used to describe any conduct that involves inflicting injury or threatening a person with whom you are in an intimate or familial relationship. Domestic violence laws protect individuals like spouses, children, and the elderly from mental and physical abuse. Crimes that fall under domestic violence include the following:
Child Abuse (California Penal Code section 273d);
Corporal Injury on a Child Resulting in Traumatic Injury (California Penal Code section 273d);
Corporal Injury to Spouse, Cohabitant, or Fellow Parent (California Penal Code section 273.5);
Domestic Battery (California Penal Code section 243(e)(1));
Injuring an Elderly Person (Penal Code section 368(b)(2));
Dependent Adult Abuse (Pen. Code section 368); and
Making a Criminal Threat (California Penal Code section 422).
Domestic violence, therefore, can be a serious crime with many years or even decades in prison upon conviction.
Overview of Domestic Violence Laws in California
Conflicts happen in all relationships; however, when the situation escalates to threats of physical harm, for example, law enforcement officers get involved, and you are likely to face domestic violence charges. The alleged victim must be an intimate partner or being in a close family relationship to you for these charges to stand. In criminal law, an intimate partner may be any of the following individuals:
- A former or current spouse;
- A registered domestic partner;
- A former or current fiancée;
- A person with whom you have a child;
- Someone with whom you have a dating relationship (or former relationship); or
- A former or current cohabitant.
Other individuals that could be victims of domestic violence include:
- A child of the defendant; or
- Any other person who is closely related to the defendant, including parents, grandparents, and siblings.
Common Domestic Violence Crimes in California
Domestic violence refers to various crimes involving reckless and intentional use of physical force or threats against an intimate partner. Common domestic violence offenses include:
Corporal Injury to Spouse, Cohabitant, or Fellow Parent (California Penal Code section 273.5):
Corporal injury to a spouse is one of the most severe domestic violence crimes under California law. This offense occurs when you deliberately inflict physical injury on an intimate partner resulting in a traumatic condition. Inflicting corporal injury to a spouse is charged under California Penal Code sec. 273.5, and is typically aggressively prosecuted. This offense consists of the following elements:
- You willfully caused injury to another person;
- Your actions against the victim caused a traumatic condition; and
- The alleged victim was your intimate partner.
Violation of California P.C. sec. 273.5 is a “Wobbler” (California Penal Code section 17(b)). This offense can be charged as a felony or a misdemeanor at the prosecutor’s discretion. See Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office (D.A.’s Office).
Some factors that could determine how you are charged include your criminal history and the specific circumstances of your case.
If you are a repeat offender or caused severe injury to the alleged victim, you will be charged with a felony. A felony conviction in this case entails a prison sentence of up to four years, excluding any sentencing enhancements. For example, if you have a prior conviction for a domestic violence-related offense or Assault with a Deadly Weapon (ADW) (California Penal Code section 245(a)(1)), your prison sentence may be increased to seven years.
A conviction for corporal injury on a spouse as a misdemeanor is punishable by up to a year in county jail.
Domestic Battery (California Penal Code section 243(e)(1)):
Under California P.C. sec. 243(e)(1), domestic battery is the use of force or violence against an intimate partner. Before you face a conviction under this statute, the prosecution must prove the following elements of the crime:
- You willfully touched another person offensively;
- The alleged victim was your intimate partner; and
- You were not acting in self-defense.
See CALCRIM Number 3470 (“Right to Self-Defense or Defense of Another -- Non-Homicide”).
Under California law, domestic battery is a misdemeanor with a maximum one-year jail sentence.
See CALCRIM Number 841 (“Simple Battery: Against Spouse, Cohabitant, or Fellow Parent -- Pen. Code § 243(e)(1)”).
Child Abuse (California Penal Code section 273d):
California P.C. sec. 273d defines child abuse as the willful infliction of an injury or inhumane corporal punishment against a person under eighteen years of age. Child abuse is a commonly prosecuted form of domestic violence, and a prosecutor must prove the following elements to secure a conviction under this statute:
- You willfully inflicted cruel physical punishment on a minor;
- The punishment you inflicted on the child resulted in a traumatic condition; and
- When you acted, you were not exercising your parental right to discipline the child.
Violation of P.C. sec. 273d is a wobbler so the prosecutor can either file felony or misdemeanor charges under this statute. Crimes against children are prosecuted harshly, and prior convictions for child abuse or other forms of domestic violence can be used against you in this case, including to enhance your incarceration term upon conviction.
As a misdemeanor, child abuse is punishable by a year in county jail. A felony conviction, on the other hand, will attract up to six years in prison.
See CALCRIM Number 823 (“Child Abuse – Misdemeanor -- Pen. Code § 273a(b)");
see also CALCRIM Number 821 (“Child Abuse Likely to Produce Great Bodily Harm or Death -- Pen. Code § 273a(a)”).
Child Endangerment (California Penal Code section 273a):
The crime of child endangerment involves willfully exposing a minor to unjustifiable suffering or danger. If you place a child at risk of being harmed, you can face charges under P.C. sec. 273a. The elements that must be clear when proving your guilt under this statute include:
- You deliberately inflicted unjustifiable mental suffering or physical pain on a minor;
- You allowed a child to suffer harm; and/or
- You put the child or allowed them to be placed at risk of injury.
If you placed a child at risk of significant bodily injury, the prosecution could file misdemeanor or felony charges. If you are convicted of a misdemeanor child endangerment charge, you may face a jail sentence of six months. As a felony, child endangerment will see you spend up to six years in prison. In addition to these penalties, felony child endangerment is a Strike under California's "Three Strikes Law".
see also Strike Sentencing Enhancement (California Penal Code section 1170.12).
Elder Abuse (California Penal Code section 368):
Elder abuse is the physical or physical abuse, neglect, or financial exploitation of an individual sixty-five years of age or older. Elder abuse is either treated as a misdemeanor or a felony under California P.C. sec. 368. As a misdemeanor, elder abuse has the following elements:
- You willfully subjected an elder to unjustifiable mental suffering or physical harm;
- Your conduct could have endangered the life of the victim; and
- You knew or should have known that the victim was 65 years or older.
If the court finds you guilty of misdemeanor elder abuse, you will be subjected to one year in jail, victim restitution, and a fine that does not exceed $6,000.
When charging you with a felony under P.C. sec. 368, the prosecutor must prove that:
- You willfully or with criminal negligence put an elder through physical or mental pain and suffering;
- Your conduct was likely to produce serious bodily injury; and
- You knew or should have known of the victim's age.
Felony elder abuse is punishable by up to four years in prison.
See Injuring an Elderly Person (California Penal Code section 368(b)(2));
Dependent Adult Abuse (Penal Code section 368);
CALCRIM Number 831 (“Abuse of Elder or Dependent Adult (Pen. Code, § 368(c)”);
CALCRIM Number 830 (“Abuse of Elder or Dependent Adult Likely to Produce Great Bodily Harm or Death (Pen. Code, § 368(b)(1)”).
Making a Criminal Threat (California Penal Code section 422):
Making threats of great bodily injury or death to another person is a crime that attracts charges under California P.C. sec. 422. The prosecution must prove that the following elements are true to secure a conviction against you for making a criminal threat:
- You willfully threatened to cause serious bodily injury or kill another person;
- You made the threat orally, in writing, or through electronic communication;
- You intended for the victim to take the statement as a threat;
- Your threats caused the victim to fear for their safety or that of their family; and
- The victim's fear was reasonable.
Violation of P.C. sec. 422 as a misdemeanor is punishable by a year in jail. If you face a felony conviction, you risk facing up to three years in state prison. It is essential to understand that if you make multiple threats to one person or issue threats to several individuals, you will be charged with each offense as separate criminal counts.
See CALCRIM Number 1300 (“Criminal Threat -- Pen. Code § 422”).
Damaging Telephone Lines (California Penal Code section 591)
People rely on telephone lines to stay connected and be able to seek help in case of an emergency. Therefore, if you damage telephone lines to prevent another person from seeking help or reporting an incident of domestic violence, you could face an arrest and charges under California P.C. sec. 591. You can be found guilty under this statute if:
- You willfully damaged, removed, or disconnected a telephone line or equipment to which the telephone is connected; and
- You acted maliciously.
Like most domestic violence charges, damaging telephone lines is a wobbler whose conviction attracts a maximum one-year jail sentence for a misdemeanor and three years in prison for a felony.
See CALCRIM Number 2902 (“Damaging Phone or Electrical Line -- Pen. Code § 591”).
Aggravated Trespassing (California Penal Code section 601):
California P.C. sec. 601 makes it a crime to threaten another person and then enter their home or workplace without authorization. The elements of aggravated trespass include:
- You made a threat to injure or kill another person;
- You made the threat intending to place the victim in reasonable fear; and
- Within thirty days of the threats, you entered the victim's residence or workplace without permission.
You could be charged with a felony or a misdemeanor for aggravated trespass. A felony aggravated trespass conviction entails a maximum of three years in prison. On the other hand, a misdemeanor conviction will cause you to spend up to one year in county jail.
See CALCRIM Number 2932 (“Trespass: Entry Into Dwelling -- Pen. Code § 602.5(a) & (b)”);
CALCRIM Number 2929 (“Trespass After Making Credible Threat -- Pen. Code § 601(a)”).
Consequences of a Domestic Violence Conviction
In addition to the different jail and prison terms that you must serve after a conviction for one of the above domestic violence crimes, you could face these additional consequences:
Domestic violence may range from less harmful behavior like stalking to severe crimes like corporal injury to a spouse. If you cause an injury to the alleged victim, a conviction for domestic violence will be accompanied by a requirement to pay restitution to the victim. Victim restitution, in this case, may include payment for medical expenses resulting from your actions.
Loss of Child Custody Rights
During custody battles in family court, the judge always wants to ensure that the child is safe wherever they are placed. Therefore, before the custody hearings, the court may carry out a background check on you to determine whether you are fit to care for the child. Having a criminal record is a significant factor contributing to the denial of child custody, especially when it is related to domestic violence.
Permanent Criminal Record
One of the most detrimental consequences of a domestic violence case is a conviction in your permanent criminal record. In California, criminal convictions are public record, and this conviction will be accessible to anyone who carries out a background check on you. Gaining employment, housing, or other state benefits with such a record may be challenging.
A restraining order is a court order issued against a defendant in a domestic violence case to protect the victim from harm, threats, or harassment. A restraining order can be issued in criminal or civil court, and the judge sets the specific conditions. In addition to prohibiting contact between the defendant and the victim, a restraining order has provisions that will obligate you to:
- Not make any insurance policy changes;
- Complete a batterer’s intervention program;
- Pay the bills; and
- Surrender possession of firearms.
If a restraining order is issued against you, you may have to move away from home and have limited interaction with your children.
See Emergency Protective Order (EPO) (California Family Code section 6251);
Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) (California Code of Civil Procedure section 527.6);
Permanent Restraining Order (see, e.g., California Penal Code section 649.9(k) – Stalking R.O.); and
Violating a Protective Order (California Penal Code section 273.6).
Loss of Gun Rights
In most cases, a domestic violence conviction will prompt a loss of your gun rights. If you face a misdemeanor conviction, you risk facing ten years of a firearms ban. However, for misdemeanor corporal injury to a spouse, you will be banned from using or purchasing a firearm. For all felony domestic violence convictions, you will suffer a lifetime firearms ban. Recovering your firearm rights after a domestic violence conviction is extremely difficult and complicated.
Many domestic violence crimes count as aggravated felonies or as crimes of "moral turpitude", resulting in negative immigration consequences. A conviction for these offenses may result in deportation or you being rendered inadmissible. Inadmissibility to the U.S. means that you are not eligible to apply for a "green card" or an adjustment of your residency status. Additionally, if you leave the United States, you cannot be legally allowed back. Therefore, it is critical that you understand the potential immigration consequences before pleading guilty.
Defenses against Domestic Violence Charges
Although the issue of domestic violence is a genuine concern for thousands of families in California, it is also true that false domestic violence allegations are common. The harsh consequences of a domestic violence conviction can ruin your life. With the following arguments, however, you can build a strong defense for a possible acquittal:
It is not uncommon for you to face domestic violence charges based on false accusations. There are many reasons why a person could falsely accuse you of such a serious crime, including jealousy, anger, and revenge. Often domestic violence accusations stem from the other parent of your children who seeks the upper hand in a custody battle. A skilled attorney, however, can uncover fabricated allegations by pointing out contradictions and inaccuracies in the prosecution’s story and thereby avoid a conviction.
Unfortunately, many abusive relationships have abuse going in both directions. For this reason, a mutual combat situation is not uncommon. Mutual combat occurs when aggression comes from both parties, and there is no way to determine the initial or dominant aggressor. Instead, a situation arose where there was a mutual attempt to harm each other. The prosecution could drop the charges if you can prove that your charges resulted from a mutual combat situation.
See CALCRIM Number 3471 (“Right to Self-Defense: Mutual Combat or Initial Aggressor”).
No law prevents you from defending yourself even when the person who threatens your safety is a loved one. Unfortunately, defending yourself could be mistaken for domestic violence and land you into serious legal trouble. Claiming that you acted in self-defense as you fight domestic violence requires you to prove the following elements:
- You reasonably believed that you or another person was in imminent danger of offensive touching or serious bodily injury;
- Use of force was necessary to protect yourself or another person from foreseeable harm; and
- The amount of force you used was only necessary to protect yourself and not to harm the victim.
See CALCRIM Number 3470 (“Right to Self-Defense or Defense of Another -- Non-Homicide”).
The Los Angeles Defense Attorney Law Firm (LADALF)
Since March 2005, LADALF's Ninaz Saffari has defended literally hundreds of individuals against DV charges ranging from misdemeanor Domestic Battery all the way up to aggravated felonies and Strikes involving alleged attempted murder. She has the best track record of success for these cases in all of Los Angeles County (and beyond), which is a testament to her skills.