Domestic Violence Charges in California
Like most jurisdictions, California has sections of its penal code that deal with physical harm to others. We address some of these in our sections on “assault” and “battery”, for example. But there is also a separate section of the penal code for assaultive behavior that counts as “domestic violence.” Penal Code 273.5 (“PC 273.5”) is the law that criminalizes types of conduct with count as “domestic violence.”
How can a person be convicted of Domestic Violence in California?
To be found guilty of domestic violence in California, the prosecution has to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that:
- The Defendant wilfully inflicted corporal injury on the victim
- The corporal injury resulted in a “traumatic” condition, AND
- The victim was any of the following:
- The defendant’s spouse
- The defendant’s former spouse
- The defendant’s cohabitant
- The mother or father of the defendant’s child
- Engaged to marry the defendant
- Previously engaged to marry the defendant
- Previously in a dating relationship with the defendant
If, during a jury trial, the jury hears all of the evidence and has any reasonable doubt as to any one of those three elements, then the jury will find the defendant “not guilty” of violating PC 273.5. But if the jury feels that the prosecution has proven all three of these elements beyond a reasonable doubt, then they will find the defendant guilty of domestic violence under PC 273.5.
On the first element, the word “wilfully” means that the prosecutor does not have to show that the defendant “specifically intended” to cause whatever harm resulted to the victim. The prosecutor only needs to show that the intended some kind of assaultive behavior. For example, a defendant might push their spouse in an attempt to intimidate them. But if the push lands harder than the defendant thought it would, or the victim trips backward and breaks a bone, then the defendant has “wilfully” inflicted corporal injury on the victim. It does not matter that the defendant did not hope or plan for such an extreme result; all that matters is that the defendant intentionally did something assaultive to the victim, and the victim suffered corporal injury as a result. In this way, violations of 273.5 are often called “general intent” crimes, as opposed to “specific intent” crimes where the prosecution has to show that the defendant actually hoped, planned for, or intended a certain type of result to occur.
On the second element, a “traumatic condition” refers to a bodily condition, such as an internal or external wound, caused by physical force. Strangulation and suffocation are also explicitly counted as “traumatic conditions” under PC 273.5.
The third element is largely self-explanatory-but note that two people can still be “cohabitants” even if they have no sexual relationship together!
Defenses to a charge of domestic violence in California
Remember that domestic violence under PC 273.5 is a “general intent” crime, meaning that it is no defense to argue that you did not actually intend to cause whatever harm or injury resulted. If the prosecution proves that you intended to do something assaultive, and the victim suffered some “traumatic condition” as a result, then then you will be guilty of violating PC 273.5. For more information on this, visit our section on “specific vs. general intent.”
Even though PC 273.5 requires proof of something less rigorous than “specific intent”, the prosecution still has to show that the defendant acted “wilfully.” If the defendant caused injury to their spouse, but never intended to do whatever action caused the injury, then the defendant did not really act “willfully.” For example, if the defendant is arguing with their spouse at the top of a staircase, and then someone suddenly pushes the defendant, causing the defendant to fall forward and push their spouse down the stairs, then that defendant did not act “wilfully”, and thus should be found “not guilty” of violating PC 273.5.
- Self-defense and defense of others
However, there are some possible defenses to a charge of PC 273.5. Like in most cases where physical injury is alleged, self-defense and defense of others may be viable issues. If the defense successfully argues that the defendant reasonably believed that the force used was necessary to prevent imminent bodily harm to themselves, and the force used was a proportionate response under the circumstances, then the defendant should be found “not guilty” of battery.
Please note that, in a “self-defense” case, the defendant does not necessarily have to show that the alleged victim was, in fact, threatening the defendant or that they would have harmed the defendant if given a chance. Rather, the defendant need only show that they “reasonably believed” that the alleged victim was threatening them and that the force used was needed in order to stop it. Also, the defense does not have to put forward any evidence in its own “side” of the case to succeed on a self-defense claim. Instead, they can show or suggest a self-defense claim through the physical evidence or witnesses that the prosecution puts forward. And furthermore, is the burden of the prosecution to disprove self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt once the defense raises it at trial. So, if a jury hears all of the evidence, and they have any reasonable doubt that the defendant might have in fact been acting in self-defense, then they would find that defendant “not guilty” of battery. Generally, in most crimes of domestic violence we raise self defense as a defense.
“Defense of others” is another possible defense to a domestic violence charge in California. This is the same as self-defense, only the defendant uses force to protect others, not themselves.
Another defense to a domestic violence charge, common to other criminal trials, is fabrication. Many trials can often boil down to “their word against mine” situations, and trials for violations of PC 273.5 are no exception. A successful defense of a PC 273.5 charge should explore every option available to probe into the credibility of the prosecution’s evidence-both live witnesses and physical or photographic evidence. And the defense should also explore whether any witnesses for their own side are available to exonerate the defendant as well-was the defendant even in the area when the injury allegedly took place? Did the complaining witness actually suffer their injuries in some other event, and is now trying to “frame” the defendant? Was the complaining witness even injured at all, and how do we know? All of these and more are the types of a questions that a well-prepared defense counsel should look into when representing someone charged under PC 273.5.
Possible penalties and jail time for people convicted of domestic violence in California.
- Is PC 273.5 a misdemeanor or a felony?
PC 273.5 is a “wobbler” which means that it can be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony in California. As a misdemeanor, a conviction for PC 273.5 can be punished by up to 1 year in county jail. As a felony, a conviction for PC 273.5 can be punished by 2, 3, or 4 years in state prison. In both situations, a fine of up to $6000 can be imposed.
Whether a charge for violating PC 273.5 is a misdemeanor or a felony will depend on the defendant’s criminal history and the severity of the case itself.
- Can I get probation for domestic violence in California?
Yes, probation is an option for people sentenced under PC 273.5. However, when probation is imposed, the court must impose a period of at least 3 years of probation and enforce a protective order shielding the victim from further harm, which may even include a condition that the defendant and victim not live with each other.
Also, PC 273.5 calls for harsher penalties for repeat offenders. If a defendant receives probation after violating PC 273.5 one other time within the last seven years, the court must impose a period of 15 days incarceration as a condition of probation as a minimum. If the defendant has two such prior convictions within the last seven years, then the court must impose 60 days of incarceration along with any probation. The court can choose to impose less or even no days of jail time if it wishes, but only if “good cause” is shown.
- Will a conviction for PC 273.5 affect me in any other way?
A criminal conviction, either a felony or a misdemeanor, can potentially have long-lasting consequences even after the defendant serves the sentence. But specifically for violations of PC 273.5, the defendant will lose any rights to lawfully possess a firearm, and will not be able to get a firearms license, either.
Other professional licensing boards (for doctors, lawyers, etc.) may also frown upon a conviction for 273.5.
If you are facing charges under PC 273.5, be sure to discuss these collateral consequences with your attorney.