A charge of inflicting injury on a spouse, cohabitant, or fellow parent resulting in a traumatic condition – which is often simply referred to as domestic violence, domestic abuse, or spousal abuse – is a serious charge that can have serious personal and professional consequences in California.
While there can be (and there are) legitimate instances of domestic abuse, the nature of the accusation is that it is, unfortunately, sometimes used in retaliation against or “to get back at” another person, resulting in a false claim but very real penalties. This reality of the nature of the charge can make it all the more important to retain an experienced criminal defense lawyer.
The California law for corporal injury on a spouse, cohabitant, or fellow parent resulting in a traumatic condition is outlined in California Penal Code 273.5(a) PC.
What are the elements of inflicting injury on a spouse, cohabitant, or fellow parent?
To prove that someone is guilty of inflicting injury on a spouse, cohabitant, or fellow parent, the prosecution must prove that:
- The defendant willfully and unlawfully inflicted a physical injury on a person covered by the law (see next section), and
- The injury inflicted by the defendant resulted in a traumatic condition
Note that this is distinguished from a "simple battery" against a spouse, cohabitant, or fellow parent outlined in California Penal Code 243(e)(1) PC (which can be seen as a “less serious” charge), because there is a requirement that the victim suffer a physical injury in California Penal Code 273.5(a) PC.
In contrast, simple battery only requires a harmful or offensive touching, and the establishment of an intimate relationship between the defendant and the victim.
Who is covered by the law against inflicting injury on a spouse, cohabitant, or fellow parent?
Contrary to what many people think, the law against domestic violence doesn’t just apply to current boyfriends, girlfriends, husbands, wives, or even those with a romantic relationship. In fact, the law covers former partners and spouses, and even roommates in the home if certain conditions are met.
The law covers:
- A spouse or former spouse,
- A cohabitant or former cohabitant,
- A fiancé or someone that the accused offender had an engagement or dating relationship with, or
- The mother or father of the accused offender’s child
What is a cohabitant?
According to California Criminal Jury Instructions, a “cohabitant” refers to two unrelated people living together for a substantial period of time, resulting in some permanency in the relationship. This sounds frustratingly vague, because it is. During trial, it will be up to the prosecutor to present evidence of this particular element, that the defendant and victim were cohabitants, but it will be up to the jury to decide whether that was in fact the case. Despite the vagueness of the language, the courts have found and have encouraged juries to look at certain factors that could point to cohabitation, including but not limited to:
- Sexual relations between the parties sharing the same residence
- Sharing of income or expenses
- Joint use or ownership of property
- The parties’ holding themselves out as spouses or domestic partners
- The continuity of the relationship
- The length of the relationship
Interestingly, a person can cohabit with two or more people at the same time at different locations, if that person maintains substantial ongoing relationships with each person and lives with each person for significant periods. Again, these relationships could be weighed by looking at the list above.
What qualifies as a dating relationship?
According to California Penal Code section 243(f)(10) PC, a dating relationship means “frequent, intimate associations primarily characterized by the expectation of affectional or sexual involvement independent of financial considerations.”
What kinds of injuries qualify as a traumatic condition?
A “traumatic condition” means a condition of the body, like a wound or other internal or external injury, which is caused by a physical force. This includes even the most minor of injuries, and injuries that result from strangulation or suffocation.
In order to show that the traumatic condition was the result of an injury, the prosecutor would have to show that:
- The condition was the natural and probable consequence of an injury,
- The injury was a direct and substantial factor in causing the condition, and
- The condition would not have happened without the injury
A natural and probable consequence is judged by a reasonableness standard. That is, whether a reasonable person know that injury is likely to happen if nothing unusual intervenes. For example, if someone throws a punch at someone’s face, a reasonable person would assume that the person on the receiving end of that punch could likely suffer some sort of effect. In deciding whether this effect is a natural and probable consequence, the jury would have to look at the totality of the circumstances established by the evidence.
So, looking at the above example, if the evidence shows that the person throwing the punch is a world champion 280-pound MMA fighter, the alleged victim is 130-pounds, the MMA fighter swung hard at the alleged victim’s face resulting in a cut across their eye, the totality of these circumstances could point to the victim’s injuries as a natural and probable consequence of the punch.
In contrast, if the evidence goes on to show that the MMA fighter did not make contact with the victim’s face, and that the alleged victim did not get the cut across their eye until several days after the confrontation with the MMA fighter, then it would be unlikely that the MMA fighter’s punch would be considered the natural and probable consequence of the eye injury.
As you can see, proving the elements in these cases can be very fact specific, which is why it is important to disclose facts no matter how insignificant they are to your criminal defense lawyer.
What situations could possibly constitute inflicting injury on a spouse, cohabitant, or fellow parent?
Because these cases can be very fact specific, a jury would have to weigh all the facts presented to determine whether they match up to the elements listed above. However, a jury could possibly find corporal injury on an intimate partner in the following situations:
What kind of sentence could you expect if convicted of inflicting injury on a spouse, cohabitant, or fellow parent?
A person who is found guilty of domestic violence under this California code section, which can be charged as a felony or misdemeanor (known as a “wobbler”), can face imprisonment in the state prison for two, three or four years if they are charged with and found guilty of a felony.
If they are charged with and found guilty of a misdemeanor, they can face up to a year in a county jail and/or a fine of $6,000.
What are the defenses to inflicting injury on a spouse, cohabitant, or fellow parent?
In building a defense to corporal injury on a spouse, cohabitant, or fellow parent, a good criminal defense lawyer will make every effort to show that the facts of the case don’t meet the elements required for this particular crime.
In that case, a criminal defense lawyer would look at each of the elements of the case, and argue that the necessary factors to fulfill a particular element do not exist. For example, he or she could argue that the defendant’s actions were not willful and were the result of a spur of the moment action during a heated argument, or that the injury was not a result of the traumatic condition.
A criminal lawyer may also argue that the defendant’s actions were done in self-defense. The defendant was acting in self-defense if it can be shown that he:
- Reasonably believed that he or someone else was in imminent danger of suffering bodily injury or being touched unlawfully;
- Reasonably believed that the immediate use of force was necessary to defend against that danger; and
- He used no more force than was reasonably necessary to defend against that danger.