It’s illegal in California to inflict physical harm on children. This is child abuse, more formally known as “corporal injury on a child.”
That said, what is considered as “physical harm” is always up for debate. Corporal punishment is legal in California, but how much punishment is too much? What happens if the injury was accidental? What happens if the injury wasn’t directly caused by your actions?
These gray areas can lead to situations where normal, law-abiding people find themselves in legal trouble. A simple situation or mistake can be misunderstood, and now, the criminal justice system becomes involved.
Child abuse allegations are always serious. Even if they don’t result in criminal penalties, the social stigma of being accused of child abuse can lead to repercussions in your personal or professional life. By working with a skilled criminal defense attorney, you can not only fight the charges against you, but you can also work to clear your name.
What is child abuse?
The crime of child abuse punishes acts of physical injury to children. To convict you of child abuse in California, a prosecutor will have to show that certain facts of the case were true. These are known as the “elements of the crime.”
Under California Penal Code 273d PC, corporal injury on a child has three elements:
- You willfully inflicted cruel or inhuman physical punishment or injury on a minor. The term “cruel or inhuman” is not specifically defined under California law. This means that its interpretation will be up to a jury.
- The punishment or injury caused a traumatic physical condition. A “traumatic condition” is any wound, whether or minor or serious, caused by the application of physical force.
- When you acted, you weren’t reasonably disciplining the minor. As we mentioned above, corporal punishment is legal in California. That includes spanking, confinement or sending a child to bed without a meal. However, again, because there is no legal definition for it, interpreting the meaning of “reasonable discipline” will be up to the jury.
As you might’ve noticed, this law is broad and is open to a great deal of interpretation.
The prosecution is sometimes allowed to introduce evidence showing prior incidents of child abuse or domestic violence. This is done to establish a pattern of violent behavior in the defendant, and it can help a jury decide if the defendant’s behavior was “cruel or inhuman,” or crossed the bounds of reasonable discipline.
Penalties for child abuse in California
Child abuse is a “wobbler” in California. This means that it can be prosecuted as a felony or misdemeanor, depending on the facts of the case and your criminal history.
For a minor first offense, most cases are treated as misdemeanors. However, felony cases are more likely in cases where the minor’s injuries were serious, or when the act of punishment was found to be particularly cruel.
As a misdemeanor, child abuse is punishable by:
- Up to a year in county jail
- Up to $6,000 in fines
Instead of jail time, it is also possible to receive misdemeanor “summary” probation for child abuse. The minimum term is 3 years, which also typically includes conditions like attendance at mandatory treatment sessions, no contact with the victim (restraining orders) and random drug testing.
For felony child abuse, punishments range as high as:
- Up to 6 years in jail
- Fines of up to $6,000
Your jail sentence can increase by another 4 years if you have any prior convictions for child abuse, unless you finished serving your sentence more than 10 years ago and haven’t been convicted for any other felonies in the last 10 years.
As well, a felony conviction can sometimes count as a strike under California’s “three strikes” law. After your first strike, your punishment will be doubled on your next felony conviction.
Defenses against child abuse charges
“Robert Helfend is one of the best criminal defense attorneys I’ve ever worked with. He was so knowledgeable, and always made sure I understood everything every step of the way. I would definitely recommend him to anyone who wants an understanding, caring, and truly helpful lawyer.” Pat, CA
In child abuse cases, there is a lot of interpretation that is left up to the jury. They must decide if your behavior was willful, if the punishment was “cruel or inhuman” and, if this was a case of discipline, if your behavior crossed the boundaries of “reasonable discipline.”
This is where having a skilled defense attorney in your corner is so important. Misunderstandings, mistakes of fact and false allegations are all to common in cases that involve children.
An attorney will carefully review the facts of the case with you and use those details to dissect the prosecution’s case. So much of a child abuse case is left up to the jury’s best judgment, and a strong attorney on your side can help defend not only your constitutionally guaranteed rights but also your freedom.
Robert M. Helfend is a veteran criminal defense attorney, serving the Los Angeles area since 1984. He is rated by SuperLawyers, the National Trial Lawyers Top 100 and Lead Counsel, and he is prepared to take your case. Call today for your free case evaluation – 800-834-6434.