California Domestic Violence Laws: Misdemeanors and Felonies

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Committing an act of domestic violence can result in either a misdemeanor or a felony charge in California, depending on the specifics and severity of the crime. Each domestic violence charge carries a different sentence. A misdemeanor charge can result in up to a year in jail with a possible fine of up to $2,000, while a felony charge can result in a lengthy prison sentence.

What Is Domestic Violence?

California domestic violence laws in 2019 define domestic violence as: "abuse or threats of abuse when the person abused and the abuser are or have been in an intimate relationship (married or domestic partners, are dating or used to date, live or lived together, or have a child together)." It is also domestic violence when the abused person and the abusive person are closely related by blood or by marriage.

California domestic violence laws are in place to protect victims from abuse from those they already know. This abuse can occur in various ways, including:

  • Through sexual assault.
  • By causing or trying to cause physical pain to someone with intent or recklessness.
  • By causing someone to experience reasonable fear from threats or promises of harm stalking, threats, harassment or battering.
  • Disturbing the peace of a victim.
  • The destruction of a victim's personal property.

Types of Domestic Violence Charges

California Penal Code Section 242 describes battery as "any willful and unlawful use of force or violence upon the person of another." Battery is a misdemeanor crime and can be committed against anyone, including strangers. A person convicted of battery can face a fine of up to $2,000 and six months in jail.

Battery becomes spousal battery when inflicted during or after a relationship. It must occur on a current or former spouse, a cohabitant, the parent of the accused's child, someone the person committing the crime is or was engaged to, or a current or former significant other. Spousal battery does not require injury to the victim, but an accuser can face this charge due to forceful or unwanted physical contact.

Spousal battery is a misdemeanor charge that can result in sentencing of up to a year in jail, a $2,000 fine, possible time in a batterer's program for up to one year, and payment of $5,000 to a battered women's shelter.

Read More: Is Domestic Violence a Felony?

Corporal Injury Charges

In California, corporal injury to a spouse or cohabitant is known as a "wobbler" crime. This means it may be a misdemeanor or a felony depending on the circumstances of the crime, how severe the injuries are to the victim and the criminal record of the accused. It is similar to spousal battery in that the victim is someone who is or was in a relationship with the person committing the crime.

A corporal injury charge is more serious than that of spousal battery alone. For a charge of corporal injury to take place, the perpetrator of the crime must have:

  • Injured a spouse or ex-spouse, a current or former significant other, a cohabitant, or a co-parent.
  • Willfully caused the injury.
  • Caused minor or severe physical trauma to the victim as the result of force.

A corporal injury conviction can lead to fines of up to $6,000 and 364 days in jail as a misdemeanor. If the charge is a felony, the perpetrator of the crime can spend up to four years in prison and face a fine of up to $6,000.

Penalties to California Domestic Violence Laws in 2019

When someone is found guilty of domestic violence, there may be increased penalties due to additional circumstances. If the person charged had been previously charged with domestic battery within the past seven years, the fine increases to $10,000. If there were prior convictions, including assault with a deadly weapon, simple assault, aggravated assault or battery or sexual battery, the sentencing for domestic violence can be up to five years in prison.

If the injuries inflicted on the victim consist of broken bones; blistering or second-degree burns; severe scarring or disfigurement; concussion; contusions or swelling; strangulation to the point of unconsciousness; stabbing or gunshot wounds; the loss of a body part or organ; or organ damage they fit the definition of great bodily injury. These injuries can add another three to five years in prison to a felony domestic violence conviction. If the accused has one prior corporal injury conviction, it can increase the sentence up to 10 years in prison, and three felony strikes could increase the sentence to 25 years to life.

Additional Charges Under California Domestic Violence Laws

A person committing domestic violence may face charges of child endangerment if a child is present when the crime takes place. For example, if the victim suffers injury by a gun, a knife or some other weapon in close proximity to her, the charge and its resulting sentencing can increase from a misdemeanor to a felony if the child was at risk of injury or death at the time of the incident.

Elder abuse is not necessarily domestic violence, but it can be if the victim is an intimate partner, age 65 or over. Some types of elder abuse include:

  • Physical abuse.
  • Neglect.
  • Abandonment.
  • Kidnapping.
  • Deprivation of necessities. 
  • Harmful treatment. 
  • Financial abuse such as scams or identity theft schemes.
  • Manipulation.

What Is a Domestic Violence Restraining Order?

According to California domestic violence laws in 2019, during a case, the victim may ask the court for a restraining order. A restraining order prohibits the defendant from contacting the accuser. In some instances, the defendant is prohibited from going to the home or workplace of the accuser per the court order. The order may also state that the person accused of the crime must move out of the residence.

A restraining order can ban a defendant from seeing a child or pets shared with the accuser and require that he stay a certain number of feet away from the victim. It may also require the defendant to attend an intervention program. A restraining order can even control the defendant's finances by making sure he pays bills, child support or spousal support, does not incur any large purchases or make any changes to insurance policies. In California, there are four types of restraining orders that can be used in domestic violence cases:

  • Emergency Protective Order: This order takes effect immediately and lasts seven days. Police can request an emergency protective order when making a domestic violence call, which may require the accused to leave the area immediately. 
  • Temporary Restraining Order: The accuser requests a temporary restraining order by telling a judge everything that's happened. The judge then decides to issue a restraining order based on that story. A temporary restraining order lasts about three weeks, usually until the court date.

  • Permanent Restraining Order: In the court hearing, the judge determines if the order should remain in place. If so, it can remain in effect for up to five years. After that time, an accuser can ask the court for a new order.
  • Criminal Protective Order: If a district attorney files criminal charges against the abuser, a judge may issue a criminal protective order against her for the length of the case. If the court finds the defendant guilty or the defendant pleads guilty, it can remain in effect for up to three years.