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Defining Domestic Violence Under California Law

Domestic violence is not one distinct crime. Domestic violence usually constitutes physical battery, but there is also a wide range of violent or threatening crimes that might be attached to the abuse, such as false imprisonment, criminal threats, assault with a deadly weapon, and vandalism. What qualifies a crime as domestic is the relationship between the accused and the complaining witness. You can be charged with domestic violence if you are accused of harming or threatening to harm:

 A current or ex-spouse

A person you previously or currently cohabitate with

A person you previously or currently date

A current or former fiancée

The other parent of your child


California Domestic Violence Offenses

Since domestic violence is not a specific charge, you need to understand the actual offenses you may face when accused of harming or threatening a current or former loved one, including:


Assault (Penal Code 240)

If there is evidence that you attempted to commit a violent injury on someone else and you had the ability to harm them, then you can be charged with an assault crime. This charge is typically a misdemeanor. However, if you intended to cause serious bodily injury, you will be charged with aggravated assault (Penal Code 245), which could be misdemeanor or felony.


Domestic Battery (Penal Code 243(e)(1))

It is a crime to inflict force or violence upon an intimate partner, including a fiance, co-habitant, spouse, former spouse, dating partner, or the other parent of your child. Visible injury is not required to be convicted of this misdemeanor crime.


Bodily Injury to a Spouse or Cohabitant (Penal Code 273.5)

If there is evidence you willfully caused your current or former spouse or partner a physical injury, you can be charged with corporal injury to a spouse. This crime requires a resulting injury, while spousal battery does not. This could be a misdemeanor or felony, depending on the circumstances. Single or small bruises usually result in misdemeanors. More severe injuries will likely result in a felony charge.


Criminal Threats (Penal Code 422)

You can be charged with a crime if you made a credible threat to harm somebody. The threat must be specific and make the other person reasonably fear for their or their family’s safety. You do not have to intend to actually carry out the threat to be convicted. Like many domestic violence charges, this is a wobbler that can be charged as a misdemeanor or felony.


Stalking (Penal Code 646.9)

If you willfully, maliciously, and repeatedly follow or harass another person and make a credible threat with the intent to make that person fear their own safety or the safety of their immediate family, you can be convicted of stalking. This is typically a misdemeanor offense. However, if your actions violate a restraining order, you could face a felony.


Harassment (Penal Codes 646.9(a))

In California, harassment is a knowing and willful course of conduct directed at an individual that is intended to annoy, alarm, torment, or terrorize and serves no legitimate purpose. Evidence of this type of behavior often leads to stalking or cyber-harassment charges.


Child Endangerment (Penal Code 273a)

You can be charged with child endangerment if any of your conduct puts a child in harm’s way. This could include an assault or battery, taking the child to or leaving them in an unsafe environment, leaving the child unsupervised in public, and much more. The child does not have to suffer an actual injury, they only need to be placed at risk of injury. You can be charged with a misdemeanor or felony, depending on the circumstances.


Child Abuse (Penal Code 273d)

California defines child abuse as willfully inflicting any cruel or inhumane corporal punishment or injury on a child. To be convicted, there must be evidence that your actions caused the child to experience a traumatic physical condition and are not excluded as reasonable discipline. For example, you may spank your child for discipline, but it must be reasonable. Although you may have been whooped with the hickory stick or belt growing up, any spanking with belts, sticks, or weapons is not considered reasonable discipline.


False Imprisonment (Penal Code 236)

This involves violating the personal liberty of another person. Examples include intentionally restraining, detaining, or confining a person and making them stay or go somewhere against their will. This may be charged as a misdemeanor or felony. A misdemeanor charge of false imprisonment is sometimes added to other domestic violence charges.