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What is the Difference Between Corporal Injury on a Spouse and Domestic Battery in California?

May 25, 2021

Introduction

California’s prohibition against domestic violence consists of two statutes: domestic battery under Penal Code section 243(e)(1) and corporal injury on a spouse under 273.5(a). Even though both statutes criminalize domestic violence, the offenses – and therefore, the punishments – differ. Today’s post will explain how California distinguishes domestic violence under each statute, as well as the consequences of a domestic violence conviction.

Simple Battery: Against Spouse, Cohabitant, or Fellow Parent – 243(e)(1)

An arrest or conviction under 243(e)(1), or “domestic battery,” is always a misdemeanor. And, because misdemeanors carry significantly less consequences that felonies, it’s generally better to be arrested for or charged with a misdemeanor offense.

A conviction under 243(e)(1) requires the District Attorney to prove two things:

  1. The defendant willfully touched someone else in a harmful or offensive manner; AND
  2. That person is or was the defendant’s significant other (i.e., spouse, cohabitant, fiancé[e], boyfriend, girlfriend, or parent of the defendant’s kid(s)).

Someone willfully touches another in a harmful or offensive manner when they touch the other person in a “rude or angry way.” For example, if a defendant slaps a phone out of their ex’s hand, this could qualify as domestic battery and thus, be punished under this statute. However, keep in mind that this statute doesn’t require actual injury (e.g., bruising), which is the big difference between 243(e)(1) and 273.5(a), also known as corporal injury of a spouse, discussed below.

Inflicting Injury on Spouse, Cohabitant, or Fellow Parent Resulting in Traumatic Condition – 273.5(a)

Unlike domestic battery, 273.5(a) can be charged as a misdemeanor or felony. That said, the elements of both offenses are nearly identical – the main difference is that 273.5(a) requires an actual injury:

  1. The defendant willfully inflicted a physical injury on their current or former significant other (i.e., spouse, cohabitant, fiancé[e], boyfriend, girlfriend, or parent of the defendant’s kid(s)); AND
  2. The injury resulted in a traumatic condition.

Willfully is another word for “on purpose.” In this context, that means that accidentally and wildly swinging the fridge door open in the middle of the night and accidentally hitting one’s spouse isn’t a violation of 273.5(a). However, if the defendant swings the fridge door open – knowing that their significant other is there – that could result in an arrest and eventually, a charge for corporal injury to a spouse.

Traumatic conditionmeans a condition of the body, such as a wound, or external or internal injury, including, … injury as a result of strangulation or suffocation, whether of a minor or serious nature, caused by a physical force.

A traumatic condition is the result of an injury if:

  1. The traumatic condition was the natural and probable consequence of the injury;
  2. The injury was a direct and substantial factor in causing the condition; AND
  3. The condition would not have happened without the injury.

Continuing with the fridge door example, if someone intentionally swings open the fridge door and hits their boyfriend, the traumatic injury might be a bruise. And the bruise is an expected outcome; after all, fridge doors are heavy, which means hitting another person with one would likely cause a bruise.

What is the difference between a felony versus a misdemeanor violation of 273.5(a)?

In California, corporal injury against a spouse is a “wobbler.” A wobbler is a crime that can be charged as a misdemeanor or felony. When deciding to charge 273.5(a) as a misdemeanor or felony, District Attorney offices will usually consider:

  • What the police report said happened;
  • The type and severity of the injury; and
  • The defendant’s criminal record, including previous domestic violence arrests or convictions.

So, for example, if someone is 40 years old, doesn’t have a criminal record, and the alleged injury is a small scrape, it’s likely that the District Attorney would charge them with a misdemeanor violation. Conversely, if someone is 40 years old with a previous domestic violence arrest and the alleged injury is a five inch cut resulting a sizeable scar, the District Attorney is more likely to charge that person with a felony violation of 273.5(a).

In turn, this initial charging decision can affect the District Attorney’s willingness to dismiss or resolve the case without a conviction. Additionally, in comparison to their misdemeanor counterparts, a felony conviction carries stiffer consequences, such as possible prison time.

What happens if someone is convicted of domestic violence in California?

The consequences of a domestic violence conviction depend both on the charging statute and the severity of the offense. Potential consequences  include, but aren’t limited to:

243(e)(1)

  • Misdemeanor conviction
  • Up to one year in jail
  • Up to $2,000 fine
  • Batterer’s Treatment Program
  • Restraining order
  • Under the federal Gun Control Act (18 U.S.C., § 922(g)(9)), lifetime ban on possession of a firearm

273.5(a) – misdemeanor

  • Misdemeanor conviction
  • Up to one year in jail
  • Up to $6,000 fine
  • Batterer’s Treatment Program
  • Restraining order
  • Under the federal Gun Control Act (18 U.S.C., § 922(g)(9)), lifetime ban on possession of a firearm

273.5(a) – felony

  • Up to one year in jail OR 2/3/4 years in prison
  • Up to $6,000 fine
  • Batterer’s Treatment Program
  • Restraining order
  • Under the federal Gun Control Act (18 U.S.C., § 922(g)(9)), lifetime ban on possession of a firearm
  • Deportation

Conclusion

A conviction for domestic violence is serious – defendants face the loss of firearms, restraining orders, and incarceration. That’s why it’s crucial to work with an attorney who understands both the nuances of California’s domestic violence statutes and has the experience to defend those charged with domestic violence.

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