In California, two main criminal statutes govern the prohibitions against domestic violence—Penal Code section 273.5(a) and Penal Code section 243(e)(1)—although other statutes apply to similar crimes.
Domestic violence charges are serious business, even if you were falsely accused or acting in self-defense. Since California criminalizes certain acts that might seem trivial to some (pushing your spouse, for example), you need to understand how domestic battery laws work.
California Penal Code Section 243(e)(1): Misdemeanor Domestic Battery
In California, domestic battery, meaning the use of “abuse” against an intimate partner, has been criminalized under the California Penal Code. Keep in mind that the words “abuse” and “intimate partner” have special meanings under California’s domestic violence code.
- “Abuse” means intentionally or recklessly using or threatening to use physical force.
- “Intimate partner” means a spouse, a fiancé, a dating partner, or a co-parent (current or former).
What this adds up to is that you can be convicted of domestic violence even if you did not injure your partner, and even if you did not touch them.
California Penal Code Section 273.5(a): Infliction of Corporal Injury
California Penal Code section 273.5(a) also deals with domestic violence, and it is more serious than a violation of Penal Code section 243(e)(1).
What is Corporal Injury?
“Corporal injury” as used in section 273.5(a) of the California Penal Code means a physical injury that was inflicted by force.
Merely pushing your intimate partner is not enough—there must be an actual physical injury in order to inflict a corporal injury on your spouse/cohabitant. However, the injury does not have to be serious. Even a small physical injury will satisfy the legal definition of a corporal injury.
To convict you of infliction of corporal injury under section 273.5(a), the prosecutor must prove the following three elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt:
- You intentionally inflicted a physical injury on your intimate partner;
- The injury resulted in a traumatic condition; and
- You were not acting in self-defense (or defense of others) at the time.
A “traumatic condition” is a bodily injury caused by the direct use of physical force.
273.5(a) PC and 243(e)(1) PC: A Comparison of Penalties
The penalties for violation of 273.5(a) are more serious than the penalties for violation of 243(e)(1),
243(e)(1) is a misdemeanor. Possible penalties include:
- A fine of up to $2,000;
- Up to a year in jail; and
- As an alternative to jail time, informal probation for up to three years and completion of a one-year batterer’s treatment program.
273.5(a), by contrast, is a “wobbler” offense. This means that the state can prosecute it as a misdemeanor or as a felony, depending on the circumstances.
If the victim suffers severe visible or detectable injuries (whether external or internal), a felony prosecution is almost certain. Possible penalties include the following.
- If California prosecutes the offense as a misdemeanor, the state can put you in jail for up to a year and fine you up to $6,000.
- If California prosecutes the offense as a felony, the maximum penalty is four years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
Sentencing and the Role of Previous Convictions
You are not likely to receive the maximum sentence for violating 273.5(a), even if the state prosecutes you for a felony, unless you already have a criminal record and/or the injuries are very severe.
Your penalties can be enhanced (up to five years in prison, for example) if, within the past seven years you have committed:
- The same offense (violation of 273.5(a));
- Assault/battery resulting in serious bodily injury;
- Assault/battery with a caustic chemical, a stun gun or a deadly weapon; or
- Sexual battery.
For the purpose of sentence enhancement, it does not matter whether your previous victim is the same victim as the current case.
Ancillary Consequences of a Domestic Violence Conviction
In addition to fines and jail time, the following consequences of a domestic violence conviction can follow you around for years, perhaps even the rest of your life:
- A restraining order;
- Loss of child custody;
- Loss of the right to own or possess a gun (for life);
- A permanent criminal record that is accessible by the public (e.g., a prospective employer); and
- Deportation or inadmissibility if you are not a citizen of the United States.
Not all of these penalties are automatic, and some of them can be reversed (loss of child custody, for example).
Dropping Charges: Can You “Kiss and Make Up” Later?
TV police dramas can be dangerously misleading. Under the U.S. legal system, you cannot “refuse to press charges.” Once someone reports domestic violence to the police or files a complaint with the prosecutor, the matter is out of the accuser’s hands.
Even if your accuser wants to recant or change their story later, the prosecutor is under no obligation to drop the case. The prosecutor can question the accuser under oath and charge them with perjury if the prosecutor believes they are now lying.
As a practical matter, however, the accuser’s unwillingness to cooperate in your prosecution can greatly weaken the case against you. Under these circumstances, a prosecutor will sometimes drop charges or seek a favorable plea-bargain.
Other California Statutes Related to Domestic Violence
California has enacted quite a number of other statutes that criminalize behavior that can be classified as domestic violence, or that is similar to domestic violence. Following is a very abbreviated list:
- Child abuse, endangerment, or neglect,
- Elder abuse;
- Stalking; and
- Revenge porn (scroll down to Penal Code section 647(j)(4) after clicking the link).
Other criminal statutes exist as well. Additionally, the federal government has enacted several relevant statutes that apply in California.
You Must Respond Quickly
Domestic violence prosecutions move quickly. Moreover, the mere accusation of domestic violence carries a stigma even though reports can be completely false accusations. We are ready to step in and fight for you.