“Spousal abuse” is the informal name given to the crime defined by section 273.5 of the California Penal Code. California treats domestic abuse involving spouses and domestic partners more seriously than comparable crimes of abuse that are committed against strangers or more distant relatives.
The offense is generally a felony that carries a maximum sentence of four years in prison, although prosecutors have discretion to charge the crime as a misdemeanor. The maximum increases to five years for a second offense that is committed within seven years of a previous offense.
Spousal abuse contrasts with California’s law against battery, a misdemeanor that carries a maximum sentence of six months. A battery can be committed against anyone, not just spouses and domestic partners.
California’s spousal abuse law is tough. This article explains 273.5 PC in greater detail.
“Spousal abuse” is not limited to spouses
Section 273.5 PC can be charged when an accused “willfully inflicts corporal injury resulting in a traumatic condition” upon any of the following victims:
- the accused’s spouse or former spouse
- the accused’s cohabitant or former cohabitant
- the accused’s current or former fiancé or fiancée
- the mother or father of the accused’s child
- someone with whom the accused has, or previously had, a dating relationship
“Dating relationship” is defined as “frequent, intimate associations primarily characterized by the expectation of affectional or sexual involvement independent of financial considerations.” Since words like “frequent” and “expectation” give rise to ambiguity, the difference between a “dating relationship” and “casual dating” can be the basis for a defense in appropriate cases.
“Traumatic condition” does not mean “serious injury”
Despite the legislature’s use of the phrase “traumatic condition,” a prosecution for the violation of 273.5 PC can be based on any physical injury, including injuries that ordinary people would not regard as traumatic. If a hard shove produces a bruise, the bruise is all the injury that is required to trigger a prosecution under 273.5 PC.
“Willfully” does not mean “intentionally”
Proof that the accused “willfully” inflicted corporal injury does not require evidence that the accused intended to cause the specific injury that resulted from the accused’s actions. “Willfully” means “purposefully.” In other words, the accused’s physical contact with the victim was not accidental.
If one spouse shoves another, the spouse has acted willfully. If the shove results in a greater harm than the accused intended – if, for example, the victim falls and breaks an arm – the accused has violated 273.5 PC even if the accused did not mean to break the victim’s arm.
The policy choices behind 273.5 PC
Harsh punishments reflect society’s concern with the problem of domestic violence. That concern is legitimate, but domestic abuse is not a problem that the criminal justice system can solve. It is easy for legislators to appease the public by defining the battery of a spouse as more serious than the battery of a brother or sister, but criminal punishments do not change behavior. If anything, they make angry people angrier. Angry abusers tend to blame the person who called the police when they are punished, setting up another violent encounter in the future.
There is scant evidence that prosecuting and punishing domestic abusers leads to a reduction in domestic abuse. A smarter legislative judgment would be to mandate treatment for abusers. Anger management and alternatives to aggression programs can help abusers learn new mechanisms for coping with their impulses toward anger. By funding treatment programs, legislators may not achieve the same headlines as they do when they posture themselves as “tough on domestic abuse,” but treatment is a more productive (and less expensive) solution than incarceration.