The crime of “domestic battery” is one of the more common California domestic violence crimes.
Under Penal Code 243(e)(1) PC,1 the legal definition of domestic battery in California is any willful and unlawful touching that is harmful or offensive—and is committed against
- the defendant's spouse or former spouse,
- the defendant's cohabitant or former cohabitant,
- the defendant's fiancé(e) or former fiancé(e),
- a person with whom the defendant has or used to have a dating relationship, or
- the father or mother of the defendant's child.2
A defendant can be convicted of this offense (sometimes known as “spousal battery”) even if the “victim” is not injured in any way. All that's required is that the defendant use “force” or “violence” against him/her.3
This distinguishes domestic battery from the related domestic violence offense of Penal Code 273.5 PC - corporal injury on a spouse, cohabitant, or fellow parent—which requires that the victim suffer some form of physical injury.4
Here are some examples of behavior that could lead to criminal liability under PC 243(e)(1):
- A woman pushes her boyfriend during a fight.
- A man, feeling frustrated with his ex-wife, grabs her shirt and rips it.
- A lesbian teenager is angry with her girlfriend for cheating on her; she pulls her girlfriend's hair and scratches her face.
Domestic battery is a misdemeanor in California law.5
The potential penalties include a fine of up to two thousand dollars ($2,000), and/or imprisonment in the county jail for up to one (1) year.6 A conviction also requires one to complete 52 weekly domestic violence classes (called a batterers' intervention program).
Even though it's only a misdemeanor, this section—as a domestic abuse offense—is a tough conviction to have on your record. Fortunately, there are ways to defend yourself with the help of an experienced domestic violence defense attorney.
Some of the legal defenses you can use to fight a domestic violence charge include:
- You acted in self-defense,
- You didn't “willfully” inflict force or violence, and
- You were falsely accused (this is all too common in domestic battery cases).
In order to help you better understand the law, our California domestic violence attorneys will address the following:
If, after reading this article, you would like more information, we invite you to contact us at Shouse Law Group.
In order for you to be guilty of domestic battery in California, your behavior must fit the legal definition of that crime. This means that the prosecutor must be able to prove that certain facts (known as “elements of the crime”) are true.
The elements of Penal Code 243(e)(1) are:
- You willfully touched another person,
- That touching was harmful or offensive, and
- The person you touched was your intimate partner or former intimate partner.7
Let's take a closer look at exactly what this means.
"Willfully" means you acted on purpose or willingly. You do not need to have intended to
- break the law, or
- inflict injury on someone else.8
Example: John and Katie, who are dating and share an apartment, get into a heated argument. Katie tries to storm out of the apartment, but John physically restrains her. While Katie is struggling to break free of his grip, she dislocates her shoulder.
John may have commotted the offense even though he didn't intend to inflict injury on Katie. He did use physical force against her in an offensive way, and he did so willfully.
Harmful or offensive touching
The most striking thing about the crime of domestic battery is that you can be convicted of this domestic violence offense even if you didn't actually “hurt” another person.
“Harmful or offensive” touching doesn't have to cause injury or pain—as long as it was done in a disrespectful or angry manner.9 In this way, the crime is similar to the crime of Penal Code 242 PC battery.10
Example: Steve and Becky, who are engaged, are arguing outside of a club. Becky is so angry with Steve that she pushes him up against their car.
Becky is much smaller than Steve, and her pushing doesn't hurt him at all. But because she touched him in an angry, violent fashion, she could be charged with Penal Code 243(e)(1) PC spousal battery.
In fact, it's not even entirely clear whether you need to touch someone else's body in order to be guilty of domestic battery. California law is uncertain on this point—but it might be the case that you can be convicted even if you touched something “attached to or closely connected with” the person instead.11
Example: Bill fights with his wife Nancy at a cocktail party. He angrily knocks a glass of wine out of her hand.
Under California law, this might qualify as an offensive touching, since the glass of wine was closely connected to Nancy's body.
Against an intimate partner
The crime of domestic battery can only be committed against someone with whom you have an intimate relationship. For purposes of Penal Code 243(e)(1), this includes:
- A spouse or former spouse,
- A person with whom you are cohabiting (i.e., someone you are living with),
- A fiancé or fiancée,
- A person who is the parent of your child, and
- A person with whom you have, or have previously had, a “dating relationship.”12
Several of these relationships—spouse, fiancé or fiancée, other parent—are easy to prove. But sometimes it can be difficult to establish whether two people were actually cohabiting, or involved in a dating relationship.
Example: Witnesses observe Carl hitting a woman named Natasha (who is not his wife, fiancée, or live-in girlfriend) on the street outside of Carl's home at 4:30 in the morning. He is arrested and charged with domestic battery. Natasha decides not to testify against him.
Carl argues that there is no proof that he and Natasha were involved in a dating relationship. But witnesses heard him refer to her as his “girl” and his “lady friend.”
That, plus the fact that she was at his place at 4:30 a.m., is considered enough evidence for the jury to conclude that they were dating—and that he can be convicted of Penal Code 243(e)(1).13
In fact, for purposes of California domestic violence law, it is possible for a defendant to cohabit with more than one person at the same time.14
Example: Nelson and Carrie are dating. They sign a lease on an apartment and move in together. Then Nelson tells Carrie that he thinks he should move out. Nelson moves in with a new girlfriend named Laura.
Nelson spends most nights at Laura's apartment. But he and Carrie continue their romantic relationship, and Nelson spends several nights a week at the apartment he and Carrie used to share. He keeps a key to that apartment and still uses that address for his official mail.
Nelson is considered to be “cohabiting” with Carrie because of the ties he maintains with their old apartment.15
California domestic battery is a misdemeanor.16 If convicted, you may face the following penalties:
- Up to one (1) year in county jail,
- A maximum two thousand dollar ($2,000) fine, and/or
- Misdemeanor (summary) probation.17
It is common for defendants to receive probation (also known as a “suspended sentence”). If this occurs, you will be required, as a condition of probation, to complete a minimum one-year batterer's treatment program.18
Also, if you receive probation as a sentence, the court may decide that—instead of a $2,000 fine—you must pay:
- Up to five thousand dollars ($5,000) to a battered woman's shelter, and/or
- Any reasonable expenses that the victim occurred as a result of the offense, including the cost of counseling.19
Finally, if you are convicted of Penal Code 243(e)(1) spousal battery for a second or subsequent time—and you are given probation as a sentence—you still will be required to serve at least forty-eight (48) hours in county jail. The only way around this requirement is if you can convince the judge that there is “good cause” why you should not serve that time.20
Domestic battery is in some ways a minor offense, and the potential penalties are not that severe. However, non-citizen defendants need to be aware of the potential immigration consequences of a California conviction for this crime.
Because this is a crime of domestic violence, it is a so-called “deportable crime ” under federal immigration law.21 This means that—even if you are here legally—you may face deportation proceedings after a conviction for this offense.
According to Rancho Cucamonga domestic violence defense attorney Neil Shouse22:
“Because all domestic violence convictions can have serious immigration consequences, defendants who are immigrants should speak with a skilled domestic violence defense lawyer as soon as possible. It is especially important to speak to an attorney who understands immigration law—not just criminal law—before pleading guilty to this offense.”
There are a variety of legal defenses that can be used against domestic battery charges. Some of the most common are:
Self-defense/defense of others
The legal defense of self-defense/defense of others applies when all of the following are true:
- You reasonably believed that you or someone else was in imminent danger of suffering bodily injury or being touched unlawfully;
- You reasonably believed that the immediate use of force was necessary to defend against that danger; and
- You used no more force than was reasonably necessary to defend against that danger.23
If you can prove all of the above facts, then you are not guilty of PC 243(e)(1) spousal battery.
Example: Sheri is very upset with her son Mark and begins hitting him fiercely. Her husband Dan grabs Sheri and holds her down to restrain her.
If Sheri accuses Dan of battery, Dan can argue that he is innocent because he acted in defense of Mark.
Lack of willfulness
You are not guilty of Penal Code 243(e)(1) PC if you did not willfully touch the other person.24 This is a version of accident as a legal defense.
Example: Matt, who is gay, and his boyfriend Raoul are arguing in the apartment they share. Matt grabs a piece of china and throws it at the wall in anger. A china shard ricochets off the wall and hits Raoul, gashing his arm.
If he is charged with domestic battery, Matt can argue that he should be acquitted because he did not willfully touch Raoul with the piece of china.
People are wrongly arrested for spousal battery every day. Often, the arrest is based on false allegations initiated out of anger, jealousy, or a desire for revenge.
If this happens to you, you may feel helpless. But a good criminal/domestic violence defense attorney has seen this situation many times before. She or he will know what kind of questions to ask and evidence to gather to make sure that the truth comes out in the criminal court process.
There are a number of California crimes that are sometimes charged instead of—or along with—Penal Code 243(e)(1). Some of these are:
Penal Code 273.5 intentional/willful infliction of corporal injury is another common California domestic violence charge. You commit this offense if you willfully inflict bodily injury on intimate partners.25
The major difference between this offense and domestic/spousal battery is that intentional infliction of corporal injury requires that you actually cause some kind of injury to the accuser.26
Unlike domestic battery, Penal Code 273.5 is a wobbler in California law. This means that it may be charged as a misdemeanor OR as a felony, depending on the circumstances of the case and the defendant's criminal history.27
Because willful infliction of corporal injury is a more serious crime than domestic battery, in some cases it may make sense to plead guilty to the charges in order to avoid a Penal Code 273.5 charge.
Penal Code 243 d PC aggravated battery is also closely related to domestic battery. The differences between the two offenses are:
- For an aggravated battery charge to stick, the accuser must have suffered a serious bodily injury; and
- For aggravated battery, the accuser can be anyone—not just an intimate partner.28
Aggravated battery under Penal Code 243(d) PC is also a wobbler. If it is charged as a felony, the potential penalties may include imprisonment for two (2), three (3), or four (4) years.29
In some domestic violence cases, the prosecutor may try to charge you with an aggravated battery instead of simple battery, if they think they can prove that you caused an injury to your accuser.
Penal Code 368 PC - California's elder abuse law, makes it a crime to willfully or negligently impose unjustifiable physical pain and/or mental suffering on a person who is 65 or older.30
If a defendant's conduct amounts to domestic battery, but the alleged victim if 65 or older, prosecutors could elect to prosecute him/her under this section instead.
California elder abuse laws provide for stiffer penalties than PC 243(e)(1). This offense is a wobbler, carrying a potential state prison sentence of two (2), three (3) or (4) years, and a fine of up to six thousand dollars ($6,000), if it is charged as a felony.31
And if the victim suffers great bodily injury or death, then the potential prison sentence increases to up to five (5) to seven (7) years.32
California "disturbing the peace" laws —set out in Penal Code 415 PC—make it a crime to
- fight someone in public,
- make unreasonable noise so as to disturb others, or
- direct provocative "fighting words" toward another person in public.33
Disturbing the peace is considered a low-level misdemeanor. A conviction for this offense carries a maximum of ninety (90) days in jail.34 In some cases, it can also be treated as an infraction.35
Prosecutors are often willing to "reduce" domestic violence charges to disturbing the peace as part of a plea bargain agreement. Defendants often like this arrangement because PC 415 doesn't carry the stigma, penalties, or immigration consequences of a domestic violence conviction.
Also, if the charge gets reduced to disturbing the peace as an infraction, no criminal record is generated – it's comparable to a parking ticket.
It might seem as if the crime of Penal Code 591 PC damaging a telephone or electrical wire has little to do with domestic battery.
In fact, though, the two offenses are often charged together. It is common for accusers in domestic violence cases to allege that the defendant cut a phone wire or disabled phone equipment, both of which can lead to charges under this law.36
Damaging a phone wire is a wobbler, with a maximum felony jail sentence of three (3) years.37
PC 601 aggravated trespass/felony trespass is often charged in domestic violence situations.
You are guilty of this offense if you first make a credible threat to cause serious bodily injury to another person, and then--within 30 days of making the threat--unlawfully enter his/her residence or workplace with the intent to carry out the threat. (Note that you are not guilty of this crime if the home or workplace that you enter is also your own.)38
Aggravated trespass is a wobbler crime with a maximum felony sentence of three (3) years.39 Nonetheless, it can be a useful charge reduction from domestic battery because it carries less of a stigma on a criminal record.
Call us for help…
For questions about Penal Code 243(e)(1) domestic battery, or to discuss your case confidentially with one of our California criminal defense attorneys, do not hesitate to contact us at Shouse Law Group.
We have local criminal law offices in and around Los Angeles, San Diego, OrangeCounty, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura, San Jose, Oakland, the San Francisco Bay area, and several nearby cities.
For more information on Nevada “battery domestic violence” laws, please visit our page on Nevada “battery domestic violence” laws.
1 California Penal Code 243(e)(1) PC – [Domestic] battery; punishment. (“(e)(1) When a battery is committed against a spouse, a person with whom the defendant is cohabiting, a person who is the parent of the defendant's child, former spouse, fiancé, or fiancée, or a person with whom the defendant currently has, or has previously had, a dating or engagement relationship, the battery is punishable by a fine not exceeding two thousand dollars ($2,000), or by imprisonment in a county jail for a period of not more than one year, or by both that fine and imprisonment. If probation is granted, or the execution or imposition of the sentence is suspended, it shall be a condition thereof that the defendant participate in, for no less than one year, and successfully complete, a batterer's treatment program, as described in Section 1203.097, or if none is available, another appropriate counseling program designated by the court. However, this provision shall not be construed as requiring a city, a county, or a city and county to provide a new program or higher level of service as contemplated by Section 6 of Article XIII B of the California Constitution.”)
2 Judicial Council of California Criminal Jury Instruction (“CALCRIM”) 841 – Simple Battery: Against Spouse, Cohabitant, or Fellow Parent
3 Penal Code 242 PC – Battery defined. (“A battery is any willful and unlawful use of force or violence upon the person of another.”)
See also CALCRIM 841 – Domestic Battery. (“The slightest touching can be enough to commit a battery if it is done in a rude or angry way. Making contact with another person, including through his or her clothing, is enough. The touching does not have to cause pain or injury of any kind.”)
4 Penal Code 273.5 PC – Willful infliction of corporal injury; violation; punishment. (“(a) Any person who willfully inflicts corporal injury resulting in a traumatic condition upon a victim described in subdivision (b) is guilty of a felony, and upon conviction thereof shall be punished by imprisonment in the state prison for two, three, or four years, or in a county jail for not more than one year, or by a fine of up to six thousand dollars ($6,000) or by both that fine and imprisonment.”)
5 Penal Code 243(e)(1) PC – Domestic battery; punishment, endnote 1, above.
6 See same.
7 CALCRIM 841
8 CALCRIM 841 (“Someone commits an act willfully when he or she does it willingly or on purpose. It is not required that he or she intend to break the law, hurt someone else, or gain any advantage.”)
9 See CALCRIM 841
10 Penal Code 242 PC – Battery defined, endnote 3, above.
11 CALCRIM 960 – Simple Battery: Related Issues. (“The committee could not locate any authority on whether it is sufficient to commit a battery if the defendant touches something attached to or closely connected with the person. Thus, the committee has not included this principle in the instruction.”)
12 Penal Code 243(e)(1) PC
13 Based on the facts of People v. Upsher (2007) 155 Cal.App.4th 1311.
14 People v. Moore (1996) 44 Cal.App.4th 1323, 1335. (“We conclude as a matter of law that for purposes of criminal liability under [Penal Code 243(e)(1)], a defendant may cohabit simultaneously with two or more people at different locations, during the same time frame, if he maintains substantial ongoing relationships with each and lives with each for significant periods.”)
15 Based on the facts of the same.
16 Penal Code 243(e)(1) PC
17 See same.
18 See same.
19 Penal Code 243(e)(2) PC – Domestic battery; punishment. (“(2) Upon conviction of a violation of this subdivision, if probation is granted, the conditions of probation may include, in lieu of a fine, one or both of the following requirements: (A) That the defendant make payments to a battered women's shelter, up to a maximum of five thousand dollars ($5,000). (B) That the defendant reimburse the victim for reasonable costs of counseling and other reasonable expenses that the court finds are the direct result of the defendant's offense. For any order to pay a fine, make payments to a battered women's shelter, or pay restitution as a condition of probation under this subdivision, the court shall make a determination of the defendant's ability to pay. In no event shall any order to make payments to a battered women's shelter be made if it would impair the ability of the defendant to pay direct restitution to the victim or court-ordered child support. If the injury to a married person is caused in whole or in part by the criminal acts of his or her spouse in violation of this section, the community property shall not be used to discharge the liability of the offending spouse for restitution to the injured spouse, required by Section 1203.04, as operative on or before August 2, 1995, or Section 1202.4, or to a shelter for costs with regard to the injured spouse and dependents, required by this section, until all separate property of the offending spouse is exhausted.”)
20 Penal Code 243(e)(3) PC
21 Alvarado v. Gonzales (9th Cir. 2006) 2006 WL 1049742.
22 Our Rancho Cucamonga domestic violence defense attorneys represent clients accused of domestic violence and other offenses throughout the Los Angeles County and San Bernardino County court systems.
23 CALCRIM 3470 - Right to Self-Defense or Defense of Another 24 CALCRIM 841 – Domestic Battery, endnote 2, above.
25 Penal Code 273.5 PC – Willful infliction of corporal injury; violation; punishment
26 See same.
27 See same.
28 Penal Code 243(d) PC – Aggravated battery
29 See same.
30 Penal Code 368 PC
31 See same.
32 See same.
33 Penal Code 415 PC – Fighting; noise; offensive words
34 See same.
35 Penal Code 17 - Felony; misdemeanor; infraction; classification of offenses.
36 Penal Code 591
38 Penal Code 601 PC - Aggravated trespass