Below, we offer a basic survey of California domestic abuse law. Learning as much as you can about the charges you face will help clear up confusion and give you greater confidence going forward.
How California Law Defines "Domestic Abuse"
California Penal Code (PC) Section 273.5 defines corporal injury on a spouse or co-habitant as "willful infliction of physical injury on an intimate partner so as to cause a traumatic condition."
This differs and is more serious than domestic violence, covered in PC 243(e)(1), which does not have to include actual infliction of physical harm. For clarity's sake, we refer to this crime as "domestic violence" but to PC 273.5 as "domestic abuse."
"Intimate partner" under PC 273.5 includes any of the following:
- A spouse/former spouse
- A co-habitant/former co-habitant
- Anyone to whom the defendant is/was once engaged
- Anyone whom the defendant is presently/was formerly dating
- The mother/father of the defendant's child
Possible Punishments for Domestic Abuse
Corporal injury to a spouse/co-habitant can be charged as either a felony or misdemeanor in California, depending on the details of each case and on the accused's previous criminal record.
Possible sentencing elements for misdemeanor domestic abuse include:
- Up to one year in county jail
- A fine of up to $6,000
- Summary probation
When charged as a felony, possible punishments include:
- Two to four years in state prison
- A fine of up to $6,000
- Formal probation
Sentencing enhancements and certain other possible consequences include:
- A restraining or protective order keeping the defendant from all contact with the victim for as long as 10 years. This is almost always included in a conviction.
- The maximum fine increased to $10,000 and/or the maximum prison term increased to five years if the defendant has previous assault and/or battery charges on his/her record.
- If "great bodily injury" was inflicted, three to five extra years in prison can be added.
- Immigrants convicted of domestic abuse will likely be deported since it is considered a "crime of moral turpitude."
- A conviction is a "strike" on your record under California's Three Strikes Law. Two strikes will double the jail/prison term, and three strikes results in 25 years to life in prison.
What Must the Prosecution Prove?
The elements of the crime that the prosecution must prove beyond all reasonable doubt to gain a conviction are:
- The defendant willfully inflicted a physical injury on another person.
- That injury resulted in a traumatic condition.
- The person harmed was a current/former intimate partner of the perpetrator.
"Willfully" denotes that the injury was purposefully inflicted. It need not be that the defendant "intended to break the law" but merely that he/she "intended to injure."
"Traumatic condition" refers to any wound/bodily injury that results from a direct application of force on the victim, whether with or without a "tool." Even a small injury counts; it does not have to be severe to legally be called "traumatic."
The traumatic condition "resulted from" the violent act if it was a "natural/probable result" of that act and "would not have occurred otherwise."
"Intimate partner" includes all persons listed as such in PC 273.5 (as listed above). A person can legally be considered to have multiple intimate partners and co-habitants simultaneously.
Common Defense Strategies
The fact is that false accusations of domestic abuse are extremely common, and yet, without a skilled criminal defense lawyer, your chances of escaping a conviction are much slimmer. Additionally, attorneys experienced in domestic abuse cases can often get charges reduced even where they can't get them dropped/dismissed.
Some of the most common defense strategies used against charges of corporal injury on an intimate partner include:
- The accusation is simply false. The accuser acted out of anger, jealously, or vengeance. The allegations may be greatly exaggerated or completely fabricated. A good defense lawyer will have seen invented charges many time before and know hot to expose them for what they are.
- The injury was accidental. Oftentimes, in the midst of an intense argument/conflict, an injury will take place even though no one intended it. In this case, the defendant might get the charges dropped or reduced to domestic violence instead of domestic abuse.
- The defendant acted in self-defense or in defense of another. If the defendant or another person was in immediate danger of bodily injury, force was reasonably thought necessary to prevent it, and the force used was not excessive, the action was justified even though an injury resulted.
When the Accuser Refuses to Testify in Court
Particularly in domestic abuse cases, it often happens that the accuser suddenly decides he/she will not testify in court or even recants on a formerly made accusation.
However, even if the plaintiff wants to drop all charges, the prosecutor can (and often will) attempt to continue the case anyway. This is out of an assumption that the alleged victim was in some way threatened/manipulated by the defendant into dropping the charges.
But without the main witness, the prosecution is fighting an uphill battle and may be more willing to consider a favorable plea bargain. He may even drop the case entirely if the evidence is inconclusive as well.
In other cases, the accuser may not actually drop the charges but simply refuse to show up in court to testify. However, only testimony given in court while facing the accused person is valid — all else is "hearsay." To correct this situation, the prosecution can subpoena the accuser and the judge can issue a bench warrant to bring him/her to the courtroom. However, the plaintiff sometimes has fled or gone into hiding and cannot be found. In that situation, the case will likely be dropped.
Other Related Offences
Other charges similar to corporal injury on a spouse/co-habitant or that often arise in conjunction with such cases include:
1. Domestic battery (violence), PC 243(e)(1): This is a less serious charge that does not include actual physical harm being inflicted but does involve touching with intent to harm. It is a misdemeanor and carries up to a one-year jail term and a maximum fine of $2,000. Plea agreements often reduce domestic abuse charges to domestic battery.
2. Disturbing the peace, PC 415: This crime involves public fighting, making unreasonably loud noises so as to disturb other people, and public exchanges of "provocative language." This is either a misdemeanor or a mere infraction. It is punishable by up to 90 day sin county jail and is sometimes used in domestic abuse plea bargains.
3. Elder Abuse: If the victim of a PC 273.5 violation is 65 years old or older, the defendant can be charged with both domestic abuse and elder abuse. Elder abuse can be a misdemeanor or a felony. As a felony, it is punishable by two to four years in prison and a maximum fine of $6,000.
4. Child Endangerment: In many cases, a person convicted of domestic abuse against an intimate partner will also be charged with child endangerment under PC 273(a). Normally, this is charged as a misdemeanor, but if the child was at risk of receiving "great bodily injury" or of losing his/her life in the course of the defendant inflicting corporal injury on the intimate partner, then child endangerment will become a felony.
Contact Us Today for Immediate Assistance
If you have been accused of the crime of inflicting corporal injury on a spouse or co-habitant in San Diego or surrounding areas, you should act quickly to secure the best possible legal defense. Attorney Anna R. Yum has the legal expertise and personal commitment to each client it takes to secure the best possible outcome to your case.
For a free consultation with Anna R. Yum, contact us anytime 24/7 by calling 619-233-4433 or using our online contact form.