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Overview of California Domestic Violence Laws

DV-in-Califonia-overview-300x293If we were to time-travel back several decades, we’d see a time in America when domestic violence was “winked at” by our culture. Couples fight, we’d reason to ourselves, and sometimes they hit each other. Incidents of violence in the home were difficult to prove, and law enforcement got involved only reluctantly. Patterns of ongoing abuse would go largely unchecked behind closed doors, largely because most cases were never reported.

Fast-forward to today, and it’s a much different story, especially in states like California, which has led the way in enacting stricter laws and penalties against domestic violence. California today has one of the most expansive and strictest sets of laws intended to protect the victims and prevent patterns of domestic abuse. That said, the laws have become so focused on protecting the victims that unfortunately, sometimes honest misunderstandings get classified as crimes, and innocent people get caught in the crossfire. Simply being accused of domestic violence can cause a person to be arrested, forced from their home and blocked from seeing their children at least until the accusations are sorted out. Even a misdemeanor conviction comes with mandatory jail time, loss of gun rights and other penalties. The victims do, in fact, receive much-needed protection, but for the accused, it’s never been more critical to have an experienced attorney to ensure a fair defense.

If you have recently been arrested for, or charged with, suspected domestic violence, it’s more important than ever to know what you’re up against. The following overview should help provide context regarding the most common charges and what constitutes domestic violence in this state.

Definition of Domestic Violence

The primary legal definition of “domestic violence” in California, as stated in Penal Code 13700, is an act of abuse committed against an intimate partner. We’ll discuss what constitutes “abuse” momentarily, but for now, let’s discuss the possible victims of DV. First, the term intimate partner encompasses a wide range of relationships in and of itself, including any of the following:

  • Spouse or ex-spouse
  • Someone you’re currently dating or engaged to
  • Someone you’ve previously dated or been engaged to
  • Someone you lived with or formerly lived with (i.e., cohabitant)
  • Someone with whom you’ve had a child

That said, Penal Code 13700 isn’t the only California code that addresses and defines domestic violence. The California Family Code (FAM) expands the list of possible DV victims to almost anyone related to the defendant by blood, habitation or marriage in the first or second degree. For example:

  • Parents and grandparents
  • Siblings, half-siblings, and step-siblings
  • Children and grandchildren
  • Aunts, uncles, nieces, and nephews

In other words, you can be specifically charged with domestic violence if you have been accused of any form of abuse within any of these family or blood relationships. You can see this is quite a broad brush stroke.

What Constitutes Abuse?

Let’s quote Penal Code 13700 directly for this one:

‘‘‘Abuse’ means intentionally or recklessly causing or attempting to cause bodily injury, or placing another person in reasonable apprehension of imminent serious bodily injury to himself or herself, or another.”

Put more succinctly, California’s baseline definition of abuse includes causing physical harm; attempting to cause harm; putting someone in harm’s way; or even causing someone to believe they will be harmed (i.e., “reasonable apprehension”). Again, since this definition is expansive, it allows for a wide range of actions that the law may classify as criminal domestic violence.

Domestic Violence Crimes in California

Under the broad definition of abuse, defendants may be charged with a wide array of domestic violence crimes based on what happened between that person and the alleged victim. Let’s break these down further into physical and non-physical crimes.

Physical Domestic Violence

The most obvious types of DV—and the ones that are easiest to prove—are those involving physical contact with the alleged victim. The most common of these are:

  • Corporal injury to a spouse or inhabitant (Penal Code 273.5)—When the victim sustains any form of injury from the altercation, from broken bones and lacerations to simple bruising. This offense is often prosecuted as a felony.
  • Domestic battery (Penal Code 243(e)(1))—when the abuse involves physical force against the victim (e.g. pushing, shoving) without necessarily inflicting injury. (Typically charged as a misdemeanor.)
  • Child abuse (Penal Code 273(d))—applying physical force to a child resulting in injury or trauma (i.e., exceeding reasonable discipline). May be either a felony or a misdemeanor.

Non-Physical Domestic Violence

As we stated earlier, California’s view of domestic violence extends well beyond physical contact. Charges of this nature may be issued on their own or charged in tandem with other DV crimes. Let’s look at just some of the crimes you could be charged with that don’t involve ever touching the alleged victim:

  • Criminal threats (Penal Code 422)—making a credible threat of harm or death to the victim
  • Aggravated trespass (Penal Code 601)—a credible threat followed by unlawfully entering the victim’s home or workplace with the intent to carry out the threat
  • Stalking (Penal Code 646.9)—encompasses a number of behaviors including following, harassing and/or threatening the victim, including in violation of a court order
  • Elder abuse (Penal Code 368)—encompasses physical, psychological or financial abuse/neglect of a person over age 65 (when elder abuse is tied to domestic violence, the alleged victim is usually a relative)
  • Child endangerment (Penal Code 273a)—allowing a child to suffer harm or be placed in danger (even if you’re not the one causing it directly)
  • Child neglect (Penal Code 270c)—failing to provide basic necessities like food, shelter and medical care to a child
  • Damaging a telephone or electrical line (Penal Code 591)—in a domestic violence context, this crime refers to cutting off communication so the victim can’t seek outside help
  • Revenge porn (Penal Code 647(j)(4))—recently enacted in 2013, revenge porn refers to posting sexually explicit images of the victim online without their consent

Given California’s broad scope of what constitutes domestic violence, if you are charged with one or more of these crimes, you could face significant jail time, fines, loss of custody of your kids, and much more—which is why you need effective legal counsel to help you navigate the complex legal process. For a free case evaluation, contact our offices today.

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