“DOMESTIC” OR “SPOUSAL” BATTERY UNDER CALIFORNIA PENAL CODE SECTION 243(E)(1)

Battery is a crime under California law, and it involves the unlawful use of force against someone else. Penal Code Section 242 (“PC 242”) lays out the elements of battery and it is discussed further in other sections of our website.

Sometimes, however, the prosecution decides to charge a more specific type of battery when they believe that the “battery” at issue might be a case of domestic violence. Penal Code Section 243(e)(1) sets out the requirements for a charge of what is commonly called “domestic” or “spousal” battery in California.

HOW CAN A PERSON BE CONVICTED OF “DOMESTIC” OR “SPOUSAL” BATTERY IN CALIFORNIA?

Domestic/spousal battery is a specific version of the more general crime of battery that applies in cases where domestic or family violence is alleged. This means that most of the proof required for domestic/spousal battery under PC 243(e)(1) is the same as a charge of battery under PC 242. To convict a person of domestic/spousal battery under PC 243(e)(1), the prosecution must prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that:

  • The defendant used force or violence on the person of another,

  • AND
  • The force used was wilful and unlawful, AND

  • The victim was either

    • A spouse of the defendant

    • A person that the defendant is cohabiting with

    • A parent of the defendant’s child

    • A former spouse of the defendant

    • Engaged to marry the defendant

    • A person formerly engaged to marry the defendant (fiancé or fiancée)

    • A person that the defendant had, or previously had, a dating relationship with

Note that PC 243(e)(1) does not distinguish between same-sex or opposite sex couples and relationships-a battery against someone’s same-sex relationship partner (or former relationship partner) can still trigger a charge for domestic/spousal battery. Also, there is no requirement of monogamy under PC 243(e)(1); a person can be “cohabiting” with someone even if for many days of the week, they are away at another partner’s place.

If, after hearing all of the evidence, a jury has reasonable doubt as to any of the above elements, then the defendant will be found “not guilty” of domestic/spousal battery. This means that if the jury is convinced that the defendant used force against, for example, a spouse or former spouse, but the jury had reasonable doubt as to whether the force used was wilful or unlawful, then that jury will find the defendant “not guilty.”

However, a person charged with domestic/spousal battery should notice that there is no requirement that the victim suffer any injury. All that matters is that the prosecution prove that the defendant used “force or violence” on the victim. While evidence of any injuries would probably be admissible at a trial or sentencing on domestic/spousal battery charges, it is not necessary for a conviction. Simply pushing against someone else could count as a “battery” if it is considered violent or forceful enough. It is also not required that the defendant directly touch the victim-throwing objects at the victim or firing projectiles (like bullets, for example) can count as the type of “force or violence” applied to another person.

It should also be noted that it does not matter whether the defendant intended to harm or touch the alleged victim. All the prosecution has to show is that the defendant “wilfully” applied force or violence to the victim. A person “wilfully” uses force when they intentionally do the thing that causes force or violence to the other person. For this reason, Battery in California is often called a “general intent crime”; a person charged with Battery cannot argue that they were not trying to hit, touch, or hurt the victim. All the prosecution has to prove is that the defendant deliberately did whatever caused force or violence to touch the victim. Sometimes battery is committed when the defendant goes right for the victim and intentionally, for example, punches them in the face. But it is also a battery under California law when the defendant walks into a crowded room, closes their eyes, flails their arms around and hits somebody. It does not matter that the defendant was not “targeting” the victim, nor does it matter that the defendant was “not trying” to hit them. All that the matters is that the defendant intentionally did whatever caused the force or violence to meet the victim.

POSSIBLE DEFENSES TO “DOMESTIC” OR “SPOUSAL” BATTERY IN CALIFORNIA

Many defenses to domestic/spousal battery are similar to the types of defenses available in a crime of generic battery under PC 242.

FABRICATION

As with most criminal cases, one possible defense is that the prosecution witnesses and/or the alleged victim simply made the whole thing up. Perhaps this can be shown by pointing out inconsistent statements in what prosecution witnesses say. Or maybe the physical evidence, or lack thereof, can be used to point out some problems with the prosecution’s version of events. Or maybe there is other evidence available that the prosecution did not previously consider, including eyewitness testimony or even video or photographic evidence. A good defense of a PC 243(e)(1) charge should explore all of these possible avenues.

SELF-DEFENSE AND DEFENSE OF OTHERS

Another defense to a PC 243(e)(1) charge is self-defense. Like fabrication, self-defense is an issue that should be explored in any defense on a charge of battery, assault, or any other charge of violence against another person.

Force or violence that would otherwise be considered a battery in California is lawful if the defendant

  • Reasonably and imminently feared for their safety at the time

  • Reasonably believed that force was necessary to prevent that threat AND

  • Used no more force than was reasonably necessary under the circumstances

Defense of others is also a defense to a domestic or spousal battery charge. The elements of this defense are the same as self-defense, only the defense has to show that the force used was necessary to prevent an imminent threat to others, not themselves.

For example, suppose that a husband and wife have a heated argument, and the wife says more than once that she just might shoot the husband later. Afterward, the wife picks up an unloaded gun, knowing that it is unloaded, because she wants to frighten the husband. The husband, seeing his wife pointing a gun at him just as she said earlier, punches the wife in the face at close range to get the gun out of her hand. In this case, the husband might never have actually been in danger. But he can probably argue self-defense successfully because he reasonably believed that the force used (the punch) was necessary to prevent being shot, and a punch to the face is no more severe than the harm he reasonably anticipated (a gunshot).

Also note that the defense does not have the burden to prove self-defense or defense of others once the issue is raised. Remember, the prosecutor has to show that the force used was “unlawful.” Force used in self-defense or defense of others lawful, however. So, if the defense fairly raises the issue, then it becomes the prosecutor’s burden to DISPROVE each element of self-defense or defense of others, or else the jury will have reasonable doubt as to whether the force used was “unlawful.”

THE FORCE USED WAS NOT “WILFUL”

As mentioned above, it does not matter on a charge of PC 243(e)(1) whether the defendant specifically intended to hurt, injure, or use force on the victim. However, the prosecutor still has to show that the defendant acted “wilfully.” If the defendant caused force or violence to the victim involuntarily, then the defendant did not act “wilfully.” Consider an example where two spouses are arguing very aggressively with one another at the top of a staircase. Someone from behind pushes into them, causing one spouse to bump the other down the stairs. The spouse who fell down has definitely experienced some kind of force or violence, and probably got seriously hurt. But there was no wilful action here; the other spouse was pushed into them, and so did not act “wilfully.”

SENTENCING AND POSSIBLE PUNISHMENT FOR “DOMESTIC” OR “SPOUSAL” BATTERY IN CALIFORNIA

Domestic/spousal battery is a misdemeanor in California. It can be punished by up to one year in jail or a $2000 fine, or both. The court may order probation instead, but in that event the defendant must attend a domestic violence program for at least one year.

POSSIBLE IMMIGRATION CONSEQUENCES TO A DOMESTIC OR SPOUSAL BATTERY CHARGE IN CALIFORNIA

Even as a misdemeanor, domestic violence charges have major consequences for one’s record. A conviction for domestic violence, including domestic or spousal battery, can trigger deportation proceedings against the defendant. Even if you are here legally, a conviction for domestic or spousal battery could make you deportable.

If you are not a U.S. citizen, for example if you are present with a green card, or a work visa, or undocumented, and you are facing deportation charges, then you should consult with an immigration attorney to properly understand the risks associated with your criminal case.