Domestic violence occurs in marriages and in relationships between unmarried people of the same or opposite gender who live together in a domestic partnership. Under California law, even people who are in a serious relationship but not living together can be victims of domestic violence. Child abuse and elder abuse are related problems that sometimes fall under a broad definition of domestic violence when they occur among family members living under the same roof.
For the purpose of implementing policies the police must follow when responding to complaints of domestic violence, section 13700 of the California Penal Code defines “domestic violence” as abuse committed against an adult or a minor who is a:
- former spouse,
- former cohabitant,
- a person with whom the accused has had a child, or
- a person with whom the accused is having or has had a dating or engagement relationship.
Section 13700 defines “cohabitants” as two unrelated people who have lived together for a substantial period of time. California’s law regarding domestic violence restraining orders expands the list of people who can be domestic violence abuse victims to include parents, children, siblings, and grandparents.
Section 13700 defines “abuse” as inflicting, recklessly causing, or attempting to cause physical injury, as well as causing another person to experience reasonable fear of serious physical injury. While abuse is usually an act that is committed with the intent to cause injury, “recklessly” causing injury means that the abuser acts in a way that is likely to cause injury and does not care whether injury results even if causing injury is not the abuser’s purpose for engaging in that conduct.
Many accusations of domestic violence are unfounded. Every accusation must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt or confessed in court before it can be punished. Legitimate cases of domestic abuse are nevertheless a genuine problem, one for which abusers should seek help. Anger management classes and therapy to help abusers overcome backgrounds that led to abusive behavior should be made available to everyone who engages in domestic violence.
Domestic violence manifests itself in a variety of ways. This article will explore the most common kinds of domestic violence that lead to criminal charges in California.
The most common form of domestic violence is verbal abuse rather than physical violence. Belittling, ridiculing, insulting, and humiliating a partner are examples of emotional abuse. Shouting, screaming, and using vulgar language that is meant to hurt a domestic partner are typical ways in which abusers communicate. Occasional anger is normal and not all angry outbursts are abusive, but a pattern of angry interaction with a domestic partner is a form of domestic violence.
California law does not generally punish emotional abuse unless it is accompanied by physical harm, but there are a couple of exceptions to that rule. First, inflicting unjustifiable “mental suffering” upon an elderly or dependent adult violates California’s law against elder abuse. While the elder abuse law is directed toward caretakers, it can apply to domestic living situations when elderly parents share a residence with their children. Neglecting or verbally abusing a parent in ways that cause mental suffering or endanger the parent are examples of elder abuse.
Second, California’s prohibition of criminal threats can lead to a domestic violence arrest if a domestic partner makes a specific threat to cause physical harm and the partner to whom the threat is made reasonably fears for his or her safety. It is not necessary for the threat to be carried out before a domestic violence arrest is made.
Physical violence in a domestic relationship can range from shoving or slapping to the infliction of serious physical harm, with or without the use of a weapon. Two domestic violence laws in California are particularly relevant to domestic violence prosecutions.
Section 243(e) of the California Penal Code criminalizes “domestic battery.” A battery is the willful use of violence or force against another person. In most cases, the battery is punishable by a maximum jail sentence of six months. When the battery is committed against one of the persons listed in section 13700 (the “domestic violence” law discussed above), the maximum increases to one year. Acts of physical domestic violence are usually charged under this section when the use of force (such as a shove) causes no physical injury or when physical violence (such as a slap) causes pain but no visible injury.
Section 273.5 of the Penal Code applies when a “corporal injury resulting in a traumatic condition” is inflicted upon one of the persons described in section 13700. A corporal injury is a physical injury. California juries are instructed that “traumatic condition” means “a wound or other bodily injury, whether minor or serious, caused by the direct application of physical force.” Any visible external injury, as well as any diagnosable internal injury, could result in a charge under this section. A violation of section 273.5 is a “wobbler,” meaning it can be charged as a misdemeanor or a felony in the discretion of the prosecutor.