Conflict happens in any relationship, but what happens if it escalates to the point of physical harm? That’s when police might get involved.

California’s domestic abuse laws are designed to protect vulnerable people like intimate partners, children and the elderly from physical and mental abuse. In California, it is not only illegal to harm or threaten a partner, child or relative, it is also illegal to aggressively or rudely touch them, even if it doesn’t cause injury.

The consequences from this can be severe, including:

  • Fines and jail time;
  • Paying restitution to the victim to cover costs like medical bills, time away from work and counseling;
  • Restraining orders and loss of child custody;
  • Deportation, if you are a non-U.S. citizen.

If you have been accused of domestic violence, it is critically important to talk with a skilled criminal defense attorney as soon as possible.

What Is ‘Domestic Abuse’ Under California Law?

California defines domestic abuse in two separate laws.

  1. Penal Code 13700 makes it illegal to exert physical force — or threaten to exert force — on an intimate partner.

    We’ll get into the definition of “force” in the next sections, but for the purposes of understanding the law, we should emphasize that this law criminalizes the abuse of current or former spouses, live-in partners, partners you have had children with, or someone you have otherwise had a serious relationship with. 
  2. California’s Family Code expands the state’s umbrella of domestic abuse coverage, making it illegal to exert or threaten force on relatives through blood (to two degrees) or relatives by marriage.

    This means it is illegal to harm brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, brothers-in-law, step-children, nieces and nephews, to name a few.

How Much ‘Force’ is Too Much?

We know that California’s domestic abuse laws forbid harming intimate partners and relatives. But when does a heated argument turn into an abusive situation, and where does the state draw the line in situations of neglect?

The answer is specific to the situation. California defines a number of specific crimes that fall under the umbrella of “domestic abuse,” which have their own case-specific definitions. We’ll detail those below.

Domestic Battery — PC 243(e)(1)

California’s domestic battery law is very broad. It makes it illegal to harmfully touch anyone in the groups listed above.

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It doesn’t matter if the accuser did not sustain a visible injury. As well, the accuser does not need to prove that you acted with intent to injure. All that is required to prove domestic battery is if one party willfully touches another in a rude or angry way.

Let’s consider these two examples:

Example 1: Tom and Sue are married. They become involved in a heated argument at home, and in a momentary emotional outburst, Tom pushes Sue onto a sofa. Sue has a soft landing and isn’t injured, but because Tom touched Sue in a harmful manner, this could qualify as domestic battery.

Example 2: Mike and Dana are unmarried, but they have a child together. One night at a dance club Dana becomes frustrated with Mike and they begin to argue. During the argument, Dana pushes Mike toward a wall. Dana is much smaller than Mike and he has no fear for his safety, but this could still qualify as domestic battery.

Domestic battery is a misdemeanor, and it is punishable by a fine of up to $2,000 and 1 year in county jail. When working with a skilled defense attorney, it is often possible to receive a reduced sentence of probation for domestic battery.

Corporal Injury to a Spouse or Cohabitant — PC 273.5

Corporal injury to a spouse or cohabitant is much more serious than domestic battery. It is a “wobbler” — a felony or misdemeanor, depending on the facts of the case — punishable by up to a year in county jail for first-time offenders to up to four years in state prison for repeat offenders.

Similar to domestic battery, this crime is defined as harmful touching of an intimate partner. However, unlike domestic battery, it requires that the touching result in an injury. Let’s review two examples:

Example 1: After years of unsuccessfully trying to make her marriage work, Linda decides to move out of the house she shares with Rick. As she tries to leave, Rick grabs her arm, leaving bruising. This could be corporal injury to a spouse or cohabitant.

Example 2: Steve and Marty are married and are arguing. Steve is gesturing wildly, and in an effort to console him, Marty tries to hug Steve. Steve’s hand inadvertently hits Marty in the face, injuring his eye. Because this was accidental, it likely is not a case of corporal injury to a spouse or cohabitant.

Similar to domestic battery, it is possible to have corporal injury case reduced to probation, depending on the facts of the case.

Child Abuse — PC 273d

Child abuse is a wobbler in California, but it is one that prosecutors in the state are known to pursue aggressively. As a misdemeanor, it is punishable by up to a year of jail time, but as a felony, sentences can go upwards of 6 years in state prison.

There are three elements to child abuse:

  1. You willfully inflicted cruel and inhuman punishment, and/or an injury, on a child;
  2. The punishment or injury caused the child to suffer a traumatic physical condition; AND
  3. Your actions were not part of reasonable discipline of your child.

In plain English, this means:

  1. Your actions weren’t accidental, and you acted with an ill intent to hurt or injure the child;
  2. Your actions caused the child to suffer a visible injury;
  3. This wasn’t a normal disciplinary action.

It is legal to spank children in California, but not to excess. Because this law has so much room for interpretation in how it’s applied, it is especially important to work with a criminal defense attorney who has experience with child abuse cases.

Child Endangerment — PC 273a

Unlike child abuse, child endangerment does not require that the child suffer an actual injury. Child endangerment is a wobbler, and the difference between felony and misdemeanor is determined by whether there was a risk of great bodily harm or death to the child.

As a misdemeanor, child endangerment is punishable by up to a year in county jail; as a felony, sentences can range up to 6 years in state prison.

There are three ways that someone can commit child endangerment:

  1. Causing or permitting a child to suffer unjustifiable physical pain or mental suffering,
  2. Willfully causing or permitting a child in their care to be injured, or
  3. Willfully causing or permitting a child to be placed in a dangerous situation.

This means that leaving loaded guns within reach of children can qualify as child endangerment, as can failing to obtain medical treatment for a sick child or leaving a child with someone you know to be abusive.

Child Neglect — PC 270

Child neglect is a misdemeanor in California. It makes it illegal to willfully fail to provide food, clothing, shelter or medical care to a child. A conviction for child neglect carries a punishment of up to a year in county jail and a fine of up to $2,000.

With child neglect, it is important to note that it’s possible to be convicted of child neglect if you have no parental rights or regular visitation with the child. For example:

Example 1: Jose ends his relationship with Melissa just before she gives birth to their baby. They do not remain in contact. Years later, Jose finds out Melissa has developed a drug habit and is neglecting their child. Jose is hesitant to regain contact with Melissa, and in doing so, might be guilty of child neglect.

We should also emphasize the “willful” part of this law. In California, if you are considered to have a “lawful excuse” for the neglect — in other words, you don’t have enough money to care for the child, as a result of poor circumstances rather than fiscal irresponsibility — a child neglect charge would be inappropriate.

Lastly, the state of California considers spiritual treatment to be a form of medical care. If your religion forbids you from seeking medical treatment for a child, instead relying on faith healing, this would also not be child neglect.

Elder Abuse — PC 368

Elder abuse is a wobbler in California, left to the prosecutor’s discretion based on the facts of the case and your criminal history. As a misdemeanor, it is punishable by up to a year in county jail and a $6,000 fine. As a felony, it can result in a state prison sentence of 2 or 4 years and a fine of up to $10,000.

Like child abuse, elder abuse happens when a person inflicts:

  1. Unjustifiable physical or emotional pain,
  2. Willful neglect, and/or
  3. Financial exploitation

On a person who is older than 65. Like with child abuse, prosecutors are often keen to aggressively pursue elder abuse cases, and because elder abuse cases typically involve involved relationships with caregivers, these cases can be very complicated. This is why it’s so important to work together with a criminal defense attorney in these cases.

Criminal Threats — PC 422

It is a crime to threaten someone or their immediate family with serious harm. In California this is treated as a wobbler, with a sentence of up to a year in county jail for misdemeanors and up to 4 years in state prison for felony sentences.

In order to qualify as a criminal threat, your statement has to meet these three criteria:

  1. It explicitly states that you will kill or substantially harm someone;
  2. It puts the person in a reasonable state of sustained fear;
  3. You commit the threat verbally, in writing or via electronic device.

An obvious case here would be drawing a weapon in someone’s presence and threatening their safety. However, there are a number of defenses for criminal threats charges, based on things like the fear not being sustained or the threat being too vague.

Aggravated Trespass — PC 601

Aggravated trespass is when someone makes a criminal threat and then enters someone’s residence, the property adjacent to their residence or their workplace with:

  1. No lawful reason to be there, and
  2. Intent to carry out the threat.

Like many other domestic abuse cases, aggravated trespass is treated as a wobbler, based on the facts of the case and your criminal history. A misdemeanor conviction carries county jail time of up to a year, while a felony conviction could carry a sentence of up to 3 years in county jail and a fine of up to $10,000.

Like criminal threats above, there is a good deal of nuance that comes into how these cases can be fought.

Damaging a Telephone Line — PC 591

A person might be charged with damaging a telephone line if they stop someone from calling for help in an episode of domestic abuse.

Damaging a telephone line is a wobbler. As a misdemeanor, it carries a penalties of up to a year in county jail and a $1,000 fine. As a felony, punishments can range as high as 3 years in county jail and a $10,000 fine.

Potential Consequences From a Domestic Abuse Conviction

Aside from the fines and jail time, a domestic abuse conviction can cause a whole host of problems.

  1. Criminal record. Domestic violence convictions will go on your criminal record, which will be accessible on employment and housing background checks. This, of course, can substantially harm your ability to lead a normal life.
  2. Loss of custody. California prohibits domestic abusers from gaining custody of minor children. You will likely receive visitation, however.
  3. Mandatory minimums. Even when sentenced to probation, domestic abusers must serve at least 30 days in jail at the outset of their sentence.
  4. Participation in batterers programs. Judges typically require domestic abusers to attend year-long counseling and rehabilitation programs.
  5. Deportation. Most domestic violence convictions in California are considered “aggravated felonies” or “crimes of moral turpitude” under U.S. immigration law. This can result in deportation.

Defending Against Domestic Abuse Allegations

False accusations — driven by jealousy, an attempt to win custody or embellished accounts of mutual fights — are common in domestic abuse accusations. An experienced and skilled criminal defense attorney can bring those facts to light.

I have spend the last 30+ years of my career fighting for the accused, tackling difficult and complex domestic abuse cases in Los Angeles courts. Call me today for your free case evaluation.