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Domestic Violence: Domestic Battery (Calif. Penal Code 243(e)(1) PC)

PC243e1_DomesticViolence_DomesticBatteryDomestic battery, which some people call domestic abuse or spousal battery, as outlined in California Penal Code section 243(e)(1) PC is distinguished from corporal injury on a spouse, cohabitant, or domestic partner (California Penal Code section 273.5(a) PC), because it doesn’t require proof of a physical injury. It is, therefore, sometimes considered a “less serious charge” when it comes to domestic violence.

But don’t let that designation fool you. Even though it is considered a “less serious charge” than corporal injury on an intimate partner, simple battery on a spouse, cohabitant, or fellow parent can still have life interrupting consequences for those facing the charge in California.

What are the elements of domestic battery on a spouse, cohabitant, or fellow parent?

When someone is charged with domestic battery or “simple battery” on a spouse, cohabitant, or fellow parent, it is up to the prosecution to show two elements:

  1. The defendant willfully and unlawfully touched a person in a harmful or offensive manner, and
  2. The alleged victim is a person covered by the law (see following section)

Who is covered by the law against domestic battery on a spouse, cohabitant, or fellow parent?

The law against domestic battery covers more than just current boyfriends, girlfriends, husbands, wives, or even those with on-again, off-again romantic relationships, despite what some may believe. In fact, the law covers former partners and spouses, and can even protect roommates in the home if certain conditions are met.

The law covers:

  1. A spouse or former spouse,
  2. A cohabitant or former cohabitant,
  3. A fiancé or someone that the accused offender had an engagement or dating relationship with, or
  4. The mother or father of the accused offender’s child

What is a cohabitant?

A “cohabitant” refers to two unrelated people living together for a substantial period of time, resulting in some permanency in the relationship. During trial, the prosecutor will likely try to provide evidence supporting cohabitation, and it will be up to the jury to decide whether the defendant and alleged victim really did cohabitate based on the evidence provided. Courts have found that the following factors could show cohabitation, including but not limited to:

  1. Sexual relations between the parties sharing the same residence
  2. Sharing of income or expenses
  3. Joint use or ownership of property
  4. The parties’ holding themselves out as spouses or domestic partners
  5. The continuity of the relationship
  6. 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, the determination of what is “substantial” will be highly fact-specific, and a jury would have to look at all factors influencing the relationship, including the factors listed 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 type of touching is “harmful” or “offensive” enough to constitute domestic battery?

The way that the law is written, even the slightest touching can be enough to be harmful or offensive if the touching was done in an angry or rude way. Making contact with the other person, or his or her clothing, is enough. The touching can also be done indirectly using an object or another person to touch the other person. For example, if someone uses an object to push another person, throws something at the other person, or grabs another person's clothing, those actions can be enough to be harmful or offensive according to the law.

Further, as previously stated, the touching doesn’t have to cause pain or injury of any kind to be considered harmful or offensive.

What situations could possibly constitute domestic battery on a spouse, cohabitant, or fellow parent?

Because domestic battery 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 simple battery on an intimate partner in the following situations:

Scenario 1: Current Dating, Cohabitant Relationship
A man and woman have had an ongoing sexual relationship for three months. The woman moved in with the man a month into their relationship. After learning the woman had texted one of her ex-boyfriends, the man threw her cellphone at her. The cellphone grazes her head.

Scenario 2: Separated, Co-Parent Relationship
A couple who had been married for two years recently separated, but is still living under the same roof. They have two children together. During an argument at a birthday party for one of their children, the wife engages her husband in a shouting match. When her brother-in-law steps in between them to stop the shouting, she pushes her brother-in-law’s hand into her husband’s face.

Scenario 3: Past Dating, Co-Parent Relationship
A man and woman who have never been married but used to date have two children together and share joint custody. When the man comes to pick up the children from the woman’s apartment for an afternoon outing, she yells at him for keeping them late the last time he had them. As she is speaking to him, she emphasizes some of her words by poking him in the chest with a butter knife she had been holding.

Scenario 4: Current Dating, Cohabitant Relationship
A man who has been living with his male partner for three years gets into an argument with his partner. When the partner tries to walk away, the man aggressively grabs his partner’s sleeve to keep him in the room.

What kind of sentence could you expect if convicted of domestic battery on a spouse, cohabitant, or fellow parent?

In the statute, the legislators went out of their way to emphasize “society’s” disapproval of domestic violence. According to the law, the “Legislature finds and declares that these specified crimes merit special consideration when imposing a sentence so as to display society’s condemnation for these crimes of violence upon victims with whom a close relationship has been formed.”

Because of this language in the law, judges are in essence allowed to “send a message” from society to the defendant regarding domestic violence, which can result in sentences disproportionate to what the defendant actually did in the case.

If convicted of domestic battery, a misdemeanor in California, a person could face a fine not exceeding $2,000, imprisonment for a period of not more than one year, or both the fine and imprisonment.

If the person is granted probation, or the sentence is suspended, the defendant will be required to participate in a batterer’s treatment program or other court sanctioned counseling program for no less than one year.

Conditions of probation may also include:

  1. Payments to a battered women’s shelter up to a maximum of $5,000, and/or
  2. Reimbursement to the victim for reasonable costs of counseling and other reasonable expenses that the court finds are the direct result of the defendant’s offenses

What are the defenses to domestic battery on a spouse, cohabitant, or fellow parent?

In building a defense to domestic battery on a spouse, cohabitant, or fellow parent, a good criminal defense attorney will make every effort to show that the facts of the case don’t meet the elements required.

In that case, a criminal lawyer could argue that the defendant’s actions were not willful and were the result of an involuntary twitch or movement, or even that the “touching” was not harmful or offensive based on the situation that the defendant and the alleged victim were in.

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:

  1. Reasonably believed that he or someone else was in imminent danger of suffering bodily injury or being touched unlawfully;
  2. Reasonably believed that the immediate use of force was necessary to defend against that danger; and
  3. He used no more force than was reasonably necessary to defend against that danger.

 Sources: California Criminal Jury Instructions | California Penal Code 243(e)(1)

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