Domestic violence cases in California are treated very seriously by criminal courts. Law enforcement officers called to a potential domestic violence crime are legally obligated to investigate the crime and offer a temporary Emergency Protective Order to prohibit the alleged abuser from contacting the victim. Prosecutors aggressively pursue defendants charged with domestic violence crimes and impose the harshest penalties available under the law, including large fines, loss of the right to own firearms, loss of child custody rights, probation, and mandatory jail time.
If you have been charged with a domestic violence crime, it is crucial that you understand the law and how it applies to your case. California Governor Gavin Newsom recently signed two Senate bills into law that enhance legal protections for victims of domestic violence, and they can significantly impact the outcome of a criminal or family court case. Retaining the services of an experienced criminal defense attorney is the best way to protect your rights and ensure you can achieve the optimal outcome in your case. Learn about these bills below, then contact Jacqueline Goodman to discuss how she can help you fight against these charges.
Domestic Violence Laws in California: The CA Penal Code and the CA Family Code
Domestic violence offenses in California may fall within the purview of criminal law or family law. The California Penal Code forms the basis for criminal law in the state. It consists of statutes that define criminal offenses and outline the provisions of the criminal procedure system, including standards that police officers and court proceedings must adhere to when investigating these offenses. The criminal procedure system involves:
- Filing the initial report of a crime, the complaint, and charges against alleged offenders
- Conducting the arraignment, early disposition, and preliminary hearings
- Trying the defendants
- Sentencing convicted offenders
The California Penal Code defines domestic violence as abuse perpetrated against an intimate partner, meaning a current or former spouse, registered domestic partner, fiancée, live-in romantic partner, a person with whom the defendant has a child, or a person the defendant is dating or was previously in a romantic relationship with. Abuse pertains specifically to inflicting physical harm on another person or placing them in “reasonable apprehension” of serious and imminent bodily injury to themselves or another person. Certain domestic violence crimes are charged as misdemeanors, some as felonies, and others can be charged at either level depending on the circumstances of the offense and the offender’s criminal history. A full list of these crimes and their misdemeanor or felony designations is provided in the FAQ section.
For the purposes of family law and domestic disputes, the Domestic Violence Prevention Act (DVPA) of the California Family Code offers a broader definition of domestic violence and encompasses more forms of abuse than are covered in the Penal Code. The DVPA defines domestic violence as abuse perpetrated against any kind of intimate partner, as well as other family members, such as the defendant’s child or any other person related to the defendant through blood or marriage in the second degree. This includes siblings, half-siblings, stepsiblings, grandparents, aunts/uncles, grandchildren, and nieces/nephews.
Section 6320 defines the following behaviors as abuse and stipulates that they may be prohibited or protected against by obtaining a domestic violence restraining order:
- Intentionally or recklessly causing or attempting to cause bodily injury
- Causing a person to reasonably fear imminent serious bodily injury
- Sexual assault
- Disturbing the peace (undermining or destroying a person’s mental or emotional calm)
- Engaging in other behavior that has been or could be enjoined pursuant to Section 6320
This section also specifies that abuse is not limited to physical injury or assault. Non-physical abuse includes:
- Stalking (following someone, appearing at their residence or workplace, or making unsolicited contact with the person’s friends or family members)
- Harassing behavior (phone calls, texts, emails, or social media posts)
- Preventing escape (blocking exits, seizing car keys)
- Preventing communication
- Exposing children to domestic violence
- Exposing children to drug abuse or illicit drug use
- Throwing or striking inanimate objects in a way that causes someone to be in “reasonable apprehension” of imminent bodily injury
Changes to California Domestic Violence Laws in 2023
To expand protections for domestic violence victims, Governor Newsom has made significant changes to the CA Penal Code and the CA Family Code by signing two specific Senate bills into law. In 2019, Senate Bill 273 updated the Penal Code to extend the statutes of limitations for victims to report and file charges against their abusers. In 2020, Senate Bill 1141 amended the DVPA by clarifying that disturbing the peace of the other party through coercive control constitutes abuse and can be used as grounds for a domestic violence restraining order or proving domestic violence in child custody determinations.
Senate Bill 273 – The Phoenix Act
On February 13, 2019, Senator Susan Rubio (D-Baldwin Park) introduced SB 273 in the Senate. After unanimously passing the Senate (40-0) and Assembly (78-0), Governor Newsom signed it into law on October 7, 2019. Under previous law, the statute of limitations for reporting domestic violence to law enforcement for legal action was one year for misdemeanor-level crimes and three years for felony-level crimes. Since the bill has become law, prosecutors are authorized to pursue convictions for crimes that have been reported up to five years after the date of the alleged offense.
The authors of the bill cite research showing that domestic violence victims do not report crimes for several reasons, such as their age at the time of the abuse, threats from the perpetrator, effects of ongoing trauma, or lack of evidence. In many cases, victims of domestic violence live with their abusers, have children with them, or are financially dependent on them, making it difficult for them to safely report the abuse. To avoid potentially dangerous consequences for themselves and their children, victims decide to wait until they can leave the relationship before they alert the police to the abuse and pursue criminal charges. By extending the statute of limitations, SB 273 aims to encourage these victims to come forward sooner to end the abuse and find justice.
SB 273 also impacts law enforcement response to these reports by offering enhanced protection for victims and helping to prevent future incidents of domestic violence. To respond to these calls, officers must receive specialized training. This training includes recognizing the signs of domestic violence, interviewing the accuser and alleged offender in separate places to minimize the risk of intimidation, implementing a standardized set of questions and de-escalation techniques during these interviews, and having at least two consultants to assist them in this process.
SB 273 applies to domestic violence crimes committed on or after January 1, 2020, as well as crimes committed five years prior to this date. This means if you were arrested for a domestic violence crime in 2019 but not charged, you may still be charged with the crime until 2024. If the statute of limitations on your arrest has already expired, this law does not apply to your case or change your circumstances.
Defense attorneys note that statutes of limitations exist to ensure evidence is reliable and that lengthening this period can cause a variety of issues for proving these crimes. As time passes, physical evidence can be lost or discarded, memories fade, and key witnesses may relocate. These factors can threaten the defendant’s constitutional rights, particularly the rights to due process and to a speedy trial.
Senate Bill 1141 – Domestic Violence: Coercive Control
On February 19, 2020, Senator Susan Rubio introduced SB 1141 in the Senate. Like SB 273, it unanimously passed the Senate and Assembly, then was signed into law by Governor Newsom on September 29, 2020. This bill amends Section 6320 of the Family Code to recognize “coercive control” as a form of disturbing the peace of another party. This means it can be submitted as evidence of domestic violence in family court, such as for the purposes of obtaining a domestic violence restraining order against an alleged abuser or resolving child custody disputes. Coercive control refers to a systematic, ongoing pattern of behavior through which abusers use a combination of intimidation, control, isolation, degradation, and violence to deprive victims of their rights and freedoms.
Domestic violence experts have established that physical violence is only one factor in abusive relationships. Most domestic violence victims experience hostage-like situations in these relationships that can impact nearly every aspect of their lives. Still, these actions are rarely considered criminal or only constitute crimes when they are isolated incidents perpetrated against strangers. Coercive control may be less visible than physical abuse. However, it does trap victims in abusive relationships by undermining their ability to resist the abuse, placing barriers to escaping, making them doubt that the abuse is real, and instilling fear, even long after the relationship ends.
Many domestic violence victims report that while they do suffer physical or sexual abuse in their relationships, it is the mental and emotional abuse that prevents them from leaving the relationship and makes the trauma more lasting. This means coercive control is still a form of oppression and is incredibly dangerous for victims. Additionally, it often precedes or indicates physical violence in the relationship, raising the likelihood that this violence will continue and escalate. In other words, intimate partner abuse is not solely about what the abuser is doing to the victim but also what they are preventing the victim from doing for themselves.
SB 1141 defines coercive control as a behavior pattern that interferes with the victim’s free will and personal liberty, either in purpose or in effect. This statute lists the following as examples of coercive control:
- Monitoring or regulating the victim’s movements, communication, economic resources, or access to needed services
- Depriving the victim of basic necessities to bully, entrap, terrorize, and subjugate them
- Isolating the victim from sources of support, such as friends and family members
- Using intimidation, force, or threats of force to compel the victim to engage in behavior they have the right to abstain from or to withdraw from behavior they have the right to engage in
Protect Your Future – Contact Jacqueline Goodman
A conviction for domestic violence carries harsh penalties, and a criminal record can impact your personal and professional life for years to come. If you are arrested for a domestic violence crime, take advantage of your constitutionally protected right to silence. Do not make any statements to law enforcement or anyone else about the alleged offense. Remain calm and respectful, keep your hands visible at all times, and do not make any sudden movements that the officers may find threatening. When you arrive at the police station for booking, request your phone call and contact Jacqueline Goodman immediately to retain legal representation.
When you face the loss of your freedom, there is no time to wait. You need an attorney on your side from the very beginning of your case. Attorney Goodman has over two decades of experience representing clients accused of domestic violence and is internationally recognized as one of the leading criminal defense attorneys in the country. She offers the legal knowledge, resources, and litigation skills you need to protect your rights and freedom. She can comprehensively investigate the prosecution’s case against you to find weaknesses or violations of your constitutional rights, create a formidable defense strategy to refute the charges, and give you the best chance at avoiding a conviction.
FAQs About California Domestic Violence Laws
What Qualifies as Domestic Violence in California?
Under the California Penal Code, the following crimes qualify as domestic violence:
- Corporal Injury to a Spouse or Cohabitant (felony)
- Domestic Battery (misdemeanor)
- Child Abuse (misdemeanor or felony)
- Child Endangerment (misdemeanor or felony)
- Child Neglect/Failure to Provide Care (misdemeanor)
- Elder Abuse (misdemeanor or felony)
- Criminal Threats (misdemeanor or felony)
- Stalking (misdemeanor or felony)
- Damaging a Telephone Line (misdemeanor or felony)
- Aggravated Trespass (misdemeanor or felony)
- Revenge Porn (misdemeanor)
- Posting Harmful Information on the Internet (misdemeanor)
How was the new law on domestic violence passed?
SB 273 was passed by the Senate on May 28, 2019, passed by the Assembly on September 10, and signed into law by Governor Newsom on October 7. SB 1141 was passed by the Senate on June 25, 2020, passed by the Assembly on August 30, and signed into law by Governor Newsom on September 29. Both bills received bipartisan, unanimous “yes” votes throughout every stage of the legislative cycle.
What is the statute of limitations on domestic violence in California?
Before SB 273 was signed into law, alleged domestic violence victims were given one year to file charges for a misdemeanor domestic violence offense and three years to file charges for a felony domestic violence offense. Under the new bill, this statute of limitations has increased to five years.