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 statute 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:
1-The Defendant wilfully inflicted corporal injury on the victim
2-The corporal injury resulted in a “traumatic” condition, AND
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
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. 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-for 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.