California Penal Code 273.5: Corporal Injury To A Spouse or Cohabitant
What Is California Penal Code 273.5?
This law states that it is a felony to willfully inflict a corporal injury that results in a traumatic condition to a spouse, former spouse, co-parent, or cohabitant. In some cases, the defendant may be charged with a misdemeanor instead of a felony, depending on the facts and evidence of the case.
A corporal injury is any type of physical injury, including internal injuries. Even minor injuries like bruising or signs of suffocation or strangulation are considered corporal injuries.
California PC 273.5 also provides the possible penalties a defendant may face if they are convicted.
- Misdemeanor – A fine of up to $6,000 or up to a year in county jail. In some cases, the penalty may be both.
- Felony – A fine of up to $6,000 or a state prison sentence of 2, 3, or 4 years. In some cases, the penalty may be both.
Other Domestic Violence Laws
California Penal Code 273.5 is often referred to as inflicting corporal injury to a spouse, but most people call it domestic violence, domestic battery, spousal abuse, or domestic abuse. There are a number of other laws that are similar, notably California Penal Code Section 243(e), which is a domestic battery law. PC 243(e) can be used to charge someone who commits domestic battery, even if it does not cause injury. For example, if police are called by one of the spouses, but there are no visible injuries, they may make an arrest under PC 243(e). Generally, PC 273.5 will be used if the battery causes an injury. The police will make the arrest under this law if there is a visible injury to one of the spouses.
A charge cannot be dropped under California Penal Code 273.5 once the police charged the defendant. The law recognizes that the defendant may use threats or coercion to get the victim to drop charges, and a dangerous individual could go free. Once the police have charged the defendant, the District Attorney is the only person who can decide how to charge the defendant and how to proceed with the case.
There are a number of elements the prosecutor has to prove to convict someone of corporal injury to a spouse. Depending on the circumstances of the case and the evidence they are able to collect, they may opt for one of the following lesser charges:
- Attempted corporal injury to spouse or cohabitant
- Simple assault
- Battery against a co-parent, spouse, or cohabitant
- Misdemeanor battery
What Elements Does the Prosecutor Need to Prove to Achieve a Conviction?
If the prosecutor does not prove the following 4 elements beyond a reasonable doubt, then they cannot achieve a guilty verdict.
Element 1: The defendant willingly inflicted corporal injury upon the victim
This crime operates under general intent, meaning that the prosecutor only needs to prove that the defendant intended to hit the victim. This goes for any other types of violent contact like kicking, strangling, pushing, punching, etc. The prosecutor only needs to prove that the defendant intended to use physical force to hurt the victim, not that they intended to break the law or that they knew what they were doing was against the law.
As per the 2000 ruling in People v. Jackson, the injury must be caused through direct physical contact between the defendant and their victim. A defendant cannot be charged for injuries the victim sustained while avoiding the defendant. The injury must have been caused by the defendant injuring the victim.
Element 2: The victim is a cohabitant, co-parent, spouse, or former spouse
While a spouse or former spouse does not require much clarification, the law and precedents offer clarification of the legal definition of a cohabitant and co-parent.
Cohabitants are two people in a stable relationship that is, for all intents and purposes, a long-term relationship. They must be living together, similar to how a married couple would reside together. The court will consider the following when determining if they are in a cohabitant relationship:
- The length of the relationship, taking into consideration any breaks in the relationship and how long the current continuous relationship has lasted.
- If the financial responsibility for living expenses is shared
- If they own any shared property
- Whether there are indications that the couple are living like domestic partners or husband and wife
- If the couple have had sexual intercourse while living together, “consummation”
This metric applies even if one of the people are involved in more than one relationship. They can even be a cohabitant in more than one residence if they meet the above metrics and can prove that they reside in both places.
The law also defines co-parents, and there are a number of precedents to consider when determining if the defendant and victim are co-parents. The father does not necessarily have to be the biological father; they just need to be considered as the child’s father in the eyes of the law. However, a biological father that has signed away their legal rights to the child may be convicted of corporal injury to their co-parent under this law even though the law does not see them as the child’s father.
If the defendant and victim are co-parents because one of the parties is pregnant with the couple’s first child, then the defendant cannot be charged. Until the baby is born, the law does not consider them co-parents. Therefore a person who hits their pregnant partner or former-partner who they are not married to or live with cannot be convicted under this law. If they are married or satisfy the requirements of being a cohabitant, then they can be charged.
Element 3: The corporal injury directly caused a traumatic condition
A traumatic condition is an injury that is caused by physical trauma. It includes internal and external injuries, as well as indications of suffocation and strangulation. The law does not define the severity of injury needed to cause a traumatic condition; even bruises are considered to satisfy this element.
The prosecutor must prove that the traumatic condition would naturally result from the physical force the defendant used against the victim and that the defendant could reasonably know that their actions would result in such trauma. Even if something else played a part in the traumatic condition, the law will allow a traumatic condition to be proved as long as the injury was a direct and substantial factor. The prosecutor must also show that if the injury did not happen, the traumatic condition would not exist.
During the trial, the court must explain to the jury what a traumatic condition is so that they can make an informed decision.
Element 4: The defendant was not acting in self-defense or defending others when they inflicted the injury
This element is self-explanatory.
Repeated Domestic Abuse
In cases where there were multiple incidents of corporal injury, the prosecutor does not have to prove which act of injury the evidence is for. They just need to prove that corporal injury happened as a result of an act of violence by the defendant. If the prosecutor can present evidence that proves the four elements for multiple incidents, then the defendant can be charged with multiple charges of PC 273.5