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Corporal Injury – California Penal Code 273.5(a)

Corporal Injury to Spouse or Cohabitant

woman taking covering herself facing an abusive personWhen a person willfully inflicts some type of physical injury that causes a “traumatic condition” and the victim is a spouse or cohabitant, the alleged perpetrator is said to have violated California Penal Code 273.5, which states, in part:

“(a) Any person who willfully inflicts upon a person who is his or her spouse, former spouse, cohabitant, former cohabitant, or the mother or father of his or her child, corporal injury resulting in a traumatic condition 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.”

In California, corporal injury to a spouse or cohabitant under this penal code is often more commonly referred to as domestic violence. It may also be referred to as domestic or spousal abuse.

Explanation of Penal Code 273.5(a)

As is the case in any penal code, the wording is full of legal terms that may not be immediately understood by someone without a law degree. Here is an explanation of the law that will make what it says more clear.

1. Crime must have been committed “willfully.

argument between boyfriend and girlfriendThe first element of the Corporal Injury law indicates that the crime must have been committed “willfully.” That is, the offender must have known that his or her actions would be in violation of the law prior to committing them. The offender acted knowingly and deliberately. This is the opposite of someone acting in a way that is careless or committing a crime accidentally or unintentionally.

In other words, Julia is aware that striking the father of her child with a baseball bat will most likely cause some type of injury. She is also aware that this type of action is against the law. Despite having this knowledge, Julia chooses to strike her child’s father with a bat, acting in a willful manner.

2. Cohabitant

The definition of “spouse” is well known, as is the definition of “mother” or “father.” What is not as clear is the definition of “cohabitant.” Under the watchful eye of the law, and for the purposes of this Penal Code, a cohabitant is not simply a roommate. To determine whether or not two people are cohabitants, the law looks at several factors. These include:

  • The maintenance of a single residence
  • Consummation of the relationship while that single residence is maintained
  • A shared financial responsibility for general living expenses
  • A joint-ownership of property (ie., furniture, electronics, appliances)
  • Statements on behalf of the offender and victim indicating that they are domestic partners
  • The length of the relationship
  • The relationship’s uninterrupted continuation

Even though people understand the general concept of “mother” and “father,” it is the exact definition that is used under this law. A woman is not considered a “mother” until she has given birth, according to the California court case People v. Ward (1998). A man is not considered a “father” until the child is born. Therefore, a pregnant woman being assaulted by the presumed father would not be a victim of Corporal Injury to a Spouse or Cohabitant unless the offender and victim were married or legal cohabitants. However, it would still be considered aggravated battery, and the offender would face severe consequences.

threatening girlfriendExample 1: Katherine is struck in the face by the father of her 10-year-old son. Even though the pair do not live together, they are both legally considered the parent of the boy. Katherine receives a black eye as a result of being hit. The child’s father may be guilty under Penal Code 273.5.

Example 2: Yvette is pregnant and on a date with her current boyfriend. The presumed father of Yvette’s unborn child sees the couple out together and becomes irate. The presumed father slaps Yvette in the face, causing a bloody lip, before her boyfriend can intervene. The presumed father could be guilty under Penal Code 273.5, if the two previously lived together as legal cohabitants.

3. Traumatic Condition

This is a condition, either internal or external, that is caused by physical force. It may include visible bruising, internal bleeding or an open wound. The condition does not have to be serious or life-threatening to be considered an element of this crime. The traumatic condition does, however, have to be a “natural and probable consequence” of the injury. This means that a reasonable person, acting in the same manner, would expect the type of injury sustained by the victim.

Example: James goes out for a night on the town with his friends and has too much to drink. He comes home ready to pick a fight. His wife didn’t do the dishes before she went to bed and James is enraged.

James finds his wife asleep in bed, wraps his hands around her neck and begins to choke her as he is screaming about how inept she is as a homemaker. As a result of the choking, James’ wife is left with bruises on her neck.

A reasonable person would believe that bruises would be caused by squeezing someone’s neck with hands or an object. James may be found guilty of violating Penal Code 273.5 due to the traumatic condition caused as a result of corporal injury.

Common traumatic conditions sustained via the application of physical force include:

  • Broken bones
  • Concussions or head trauma
  • Sprains
  • Internal bleeding

The fact that a traumatic condition must be present as a result of corporal injury separates Penal Code 273.5 from the lesser crime of domestic battery (Penal Code 243(e)(1)). It should also be noted that a traumatic condition must be caused by direct physical contact on the part of the offender. If the victim is trying to escape and runs into an object, resulting in injury, Penal Code 273.5 would not apply if this was the only cause of injury.

sad manExample: Grant learns that his partner, Michael, has been dating someone on the side. Grant verbally confronts his partner. The verbal confrontation turns physical, and Grant shoves Michael, causing no injury.

Michael attempts to leave the area to prevent further fighting. In his hurry, he trips and falls, striking his head on a table. He ends up with a gash on his forehead. Grant is not guilty of Corporal Injury because his actions did not directly cause his partner’s injury.

Proving & Defending Domestic Violence 273.5(a)

If you are the victim of, or defending against domestic violence it’s critical that you understand how the law works, and is applied to each situation. In order to prove that a person is guilty of domestic violence, (CA PC 273.5(a)), the prosecutor needs to establish the following facts:

  1. The defendant inflicted physical injury to spouse, cohabitant or fellow parent.
  2. The injury resulted in a traumatic condition.
  3. The defendant was not acting is self defense.

Penalties of Conviction Under Penal Code 273.5(a)

The penalties that a person convicted of Penal Code 273.5, corporal injury, may face are laid out in the statute itself. How exactly a person convicted will be sentenced depends on several factors, not the least of which is whether the crime was prosecuted as a misdemeanor or a felony.

A prosecutor will look at several factors when deciding whether to charge a person with a misdemeanor or a felony. The level of offense will depend largely on the details of the case and the criminal history of the accused. If a person is charged with and convicted of misdemeanor corporal injury, they may face:

  • A maximum of one year in county jail
  • A maximum fine of $6,000
  • Misdemeanor probation

A judge can impose one of these sentences or a combination of them. A judge has discretion and will look, as the prosecutor did, at the facts of the case and the criminal history of the guilty party.

If the prosecutor decides to pursue felony charges and the accused is found guilty of the crime, they face similar penalties, though the maximum time of incarceration is increased. When a person is convicted of felony corporal injury, they face:

  • Two, three or four years in a California state prison
  • A maximum fine of $6,000
  • Felony probation

As is the case in a misdemeanor conviction, the judge has discretion when it comes to sentencing a person found guilty of felony corporal injury. A judge will look at the facts of the case and the criminal record of the convicted person. In addition to sentencing a person to jail time, fines and probation, a judge will typically issue a restraining or protective order that can remain in place for up to 10 years.

Prior Convictions Can Impact Sentencing

No matter the charge, a lengthy criminal record can impact sentencing. For instance, a judge may look more favorably upon a person convicted of a crime when it is their first run-in with the law. A judge may “throw the book” at a person with a criminal past. In the state of California, increased penalties are directly related to specific crimes when you are convicted of corporal injury.

man in jailPersons that have been convicted of domestic battery within the past seven years and are convicted of corporal injury will see the maximum fine increased by $4,000. The convicted person will now face a maximum fine of $10,000. If you have been convicted of simple battery, aggravated battery, sexual battery or assault with a deadly weapon in the past seven years, it’s not only your fine that will potentially increase. This type of criminal history could have a person’s maximum jail time jump by five years.

There is one more thing that can have an impact on a sentence, and that is whether or not there was great bodily injury. If the victim suffered a significant injury as a result of the incident, the convicted person could face an additional three to five years in prison. This is known as California’s “great bodily injury” sentencing law and is something to be aware of.

Probation Comes with Conditions

Many people would consider it a bit of good luck to be sentenced to probation instead of jail or prison. That may be true, but probation does not come without costs of its own. When a judge sentences a person to either misdemeanor or felony probation, the judge also sets forth conditions which may include:

  • A minimum stay in jail or prison if you have any convictions for crimes in the past seven years as outlined above. The minimum amount of time spent incarcerated will depend on the number of convictions.
  • Some type of payment (donation) to a battered women’s shelter.
  • Compensation or reimbursement to the victim if they sustained financial damage as a result of their injuries.
  • Payments for counseling or other related services that the victim may find necessary.
  • Attendance in a program of some type. It may be a treatment program for drugs or alcohol or for batterers. A judge may assign more than one type of treatment program as a condition of probation.
  • No contact with the victim and/or others affected by the crime.

Along with conditions for probation will come an explanation of what will happen should the convicted person fail to meet or maintain those conditions. Typically, a judge will impose a sentence and put off that sentence as the major condition of probation. If a person on probation breaks further laws, not only will they have their original sentence imposed, but they will face additional sentencing if convicted of the new charges.

Example: William is convicted of misdemeanor corporal injury. He has no criminal history, is gainfully employed and has strong ties to the local area. The judge sentences William to three years’ probation and advises William of the conditions of that probation. The judge also advises William that if he violates any of those conditions, he will be taken into custody and incarcerated in the country jail for 180 days.

If you have questions regarding Penal Code 273.5(a) or have been charged with corporal injury, call our office. You may schedule an appointment with one of our experienced attorneys and your confidential consultation will be held at no cost to you. We are proud to serve the communities in Redlands, San Bernardino, Riverside County, Orange County and Los Angeles County.

For more information about domestic violence, a conviction of the crime and the possible consequences, visit our Domestic Violence page.

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