California Domestic Violence Laws

Domestic Violence (2)

In California, “domestic violence” refers to violence that the defendant allegedly committed against persons with who he or she has a relationship. These persons may include:

  • Spouses;
  • Boyfriends/Girlfriends (Past or Present);
  • Person to Whom the Defendant Is or Was Engaged to Be Married;
  • Children;
  • Family Members; and
  • Cohabitants.

Domestic violence laws are intended to give special protections to these people because of the potential vulnerabilities the victims face as a result of their relationship to the defendant, and to severely punish persons who break these laws. Prosecutors are given wide discretion in California to pursue the maximum sentence possible, even when the injury to the victim is minimal. Thus, if you have been charged with domestic violence in California, you are facing serious punishment.

Types of Criminal Charges and Penalties

There is not one specific domestic violence law in California. Which crime you are charged with is dependent on the actions that allegedly took place and your relationship to the alleged victim. Here are a few common domestic violence charges:

  • Infliction of corporal injury on a spouse or cohabitant – PC 273.5
  • Domestic battery – PC 243(e)(1)
  • Child abuse – PC 273d

Infliction of Corporal Injury on a Spouse or Cohabitant (PC 273.5)

Corporal Injury on spouse

Corporal injury on a spouse is a common form of domestic violence

Under Penal Code Section 273.5, it is a crime to inflict “corporal injury” resulting in a “traumatic condition” upon a victim described as:

  • a current or former spouse;
  • a current or former cohabitant;
  • someone with whom you have, or previously had, an engagement or dating relationship; or
  • the mother or father of your child.

A traumatic condition is defined as “a wound or other bodily injury, whether minor or serious, caused by the direct application of physical force.”1 This can be any visible injury, such as swelling, bruising, broken bones, marks, or cuts.

PC 273.5 is a “wobbler,” meaning that it may be charged either as a misdemeanor or a felony depending on the facts of your case. If convicted of a misdemeanor, you face up to 364 days in county jail, and a maximum fine of $6,000. If convicted of a felony, you face two, three or four years in state prison and a maximum $6,000 fine. The length of your sentence can be increased if it is proven that you a weapon to inflict injury, or if you inflicted severe bodily injury upon the alleged victim.

Domestic Battery (PC 243(e)(1))

Under Penal Code Section 243(e)(1), it is a misdemeanor crime to willfully inflict force or violence on persons listed above. However, unlike Penal Code section 273.5, no visible injury is required. The penalty for domestic battery is a maximum of 364 days in county jail, and a fine of $2,000.

Child Abuse (PC 273d)

Under Penal Code Section 273d, the infliction of cruel or inhuman corporal punishment or injury on a child is a crime in California. Thus, California law allows parents to reasonably discipline their children through such acts as spanking, but the discipline can result in a conviction if the court finds the punishment was cruel or inhuman, and caused even the slightest injury.

Penal Code Section 273d is also a wobbler.  If you are convicted of a misdemeanor, the penalty for child abuse is up to 364 days in county jail. You face a sentence of two, four, or six years in state prison for a felony child abuse conviction.

Additional Punishments for Domestic Violence Convictions

On top of the penalties described above, may order for you to attend anger management classes, typically for a year.  Failure to comply with the court-ordered anger management class schedule will result in a probation violation conviction, upon which you will face additional penalties.

Additionally, a domestic violence conviction in California can be used to revoke your right to use, own, or possess a firearm for at least ten years. Federal law is more stringent, and may result in your right to use, own, or possess a firearm being permanently revoked.

A domestic violence conviction may result in you losing custody of your child. If you do not have custody of the child, the court could impose a “monitored visitation,” which means you avoid visit your children with supervision, or your visitation rights can be removed altogether. This will remain as such until you can prove that you no longer pose a risk to the child’s health or safety.

Prosecution of Domestic Violence Cases

prosecution (2) domestic violence

Prosecution of domestic violence

Generally, the victim is the chief witness in a domestic violence case. Due to the nature of their relationship, there is a tendency for victims to have mixed feelings about testifying against the accused. This is why California law gives the alleged victim no discretion over whether or not the charges will be filed. Once allegations have been made to the police, only the District Attorney has the discretion whether to prosecute or drop the charges.

In order to convict you of domestic violence, the prosecution must prove beyond reasonable doubt the following elements:

  1. You willfully and unlawfully inflicted a physical injury;
  2. The person who was injured was related to you in one of these ways:
    1. Current or former spouse;
    2. Current or former cohabitant;
    3. Your child or a child who has been placed under your care;
    4. The mother or father of your child; or
    5. Someone with whom the defendant has or previously had an engagement or dating relationship;
  3. The injury inflicted by you resulted in a traumatic condition (see above for definition); and
  4. You did not act in self-defense.2

Defenses to Domestic Violence Charges

If you have been charged with one or more of these crimes involving domestic violence, a skilled attorney will be able to devise a strong defense strategy on your behalf. Some common defenses to domestic violence charges include but are not limited to:

  • You acted in self-defense or in defense of another;
  • The injury was not caused by a willful act, but rather was an accidental injury; and
  • The alleged victim made a false or mistaken accusation.

California law gives a witness spouse the right to refuse to testify against his or her spouse. A witness is considered unavailable if he or she invokes this right. If the victim in a domestic violence case decides not to cooperate, the prosecution’s chances of securing a conviction can be severely reduced if the prosecution does not have any other substantial evidence.

Frequently Asked Questions

(1) I only hit my spouse because I was defending myself, and I was the only one arrested.  What are my options?

Self-defense is always a viable defense against domestic violence charges.  It is an affirmative defense, which means you must be able to prove the following:

  • You reasonably believed that you (or another person) were in imminent danger of suffering bodily injury or being unlawfully touched;
  • You reasonably believed that the immediate use of force was necessary to defend against that danger; and
  • You used no more force than necessary to repel the danger.

(2) My spouse does not want to press charges. Can the district attorney still prosecute?

Yes. California takes the decision out of the hands of the victim in domestic violence cases and puts it entirely in the hands of the district attorney. However, as explained above, a spouse who does not wish to testify has the right to refuse to do so.

(3) My spouse doesn’t want to testify against me, but wants to testify on my behalf. Is that allowed?

Yes, but you may run into problems if you proceed this way. If your spouse testifies on your behalf, he or she will be open to cross-examination by the prosecution, who could then bring in his or her statements made to the police.

(4) I injured my roommate during an argument. Is that domestic violence?

Yes, it can be. A roommate is a cohabitant who, even in the absence of any other relationship with him or her, is protected under California domestic violence laws.

Contact the Domestic Violence Defense Attorneys at Wallin & Klarich Right Away

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Speak with the Partners of Wallin & Klarich today

If you are facing charges for a crime of domestic violence, you face serious consequences that could dramatically impact your life. You will need a skilled and experienced criminal defense attorney to defend you. At Wallin & Klarich, our team of attorneys and legal professionals has been successfully defending clients against domestic violence charges for over 30 years. Our skilled attorney will work diligently to get you the best possible result in your case.

With offices in Orange County, Los Angeles, San Diego, San Bernardino, Riverside, and Ventura, there is an experienced Wallin & Klarich criminal defense attorney available to help you no matter where you work or live.

Contact our offices today at (877) 4-NO-JAIL or (877) 466-5245 for a free, no-obligation phone consultation. We will get through this together.


1. See CALCRIM 840. Inflicting Injury on Spouse, Cohabitant, or Fellow Parent Resulting in Traumatic Condition (Pen. Code, § 273.5(a))

2. Id.

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