If you’ve been hurt by a loved one or are being charged with hurting them, this article will help you understand what the law says about corporal injury to a spouse.
With focus and effort, our culture has recognized the problem of domestic violence. Nonetheless, it persists as a serious problem in the United States. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men have experienced physical violence from a spouse or partner.¹
For the past several decades, both federal and state lawmakers have taken various actions to curb domestic violence.
From 1994 until it expired in 2018, the Violence Against Women Act assisted victims of domestic violence in several ways. For example, it made domestic restraining orders enforceable nationwide. It helped immigrants who were targets of domestic violence by allowing them to get residency separate from their abusers.²
States have approached the problem of domestic violence from a different angle. Domestic violence crimes are usually prosecuted in state courts. So, state lawmakers can craft criminal laws that focus on domestic violence. Criminal charges arising from state domestic violence laws can be a powerful force for change.
An example of a state domestic violence law is California Penal Code § 243(e). Section 243 defines and discusses the crime of battery generally. Subsection (e) specifically addresses battery against a spouse and prescribes a tougher penalty.
Penal Code § 273.5 goes even further. It states that if a “corporal injury” is inflicted on an intimate partner, that will be a felony. While this law is unique to California, other states like New York recognize domestic abuse crimes and prosecute some (like first-degree strangulation) as felonies.
This article will focus on the crime of corporal injury to a spouse and its penalties. We’ll also take a look at potential defenses to a charge of corporal injury to spouse and how those defenses might be litigated.
Defining Corporal Injury To Spouse
To understand the crime of corporal injury to spouse, you must first understand a few basic concepts. Assault, battery, and spousal abuse or domestic battery are all important terms.
In legal terms, “assault” does not mean “attack.” In most states, assault means putting a reasonable person in fear of imminent danger or harm.
In other words, if you make somebody reasonably afraid you’ll hit them, that is usually assault.
2. Battery and Spousal Battery
Battery focuses on actual physical contact. The California Penal Code defines battery as a “willful or unlawful use of force or violence.” The laws of other states are more or less in agreement on this definition. Thus, it’s more accurate to say that assault is causing someone to be afraid they’ll be hit, and battery is the hit itself.
Domestic violence laws provide heavier penalties for domestic violence or “spousal battery.”
Spousal battery is the use of force or violence against someone in one of the following categories:
- a person you’ve lived with (a current or former cohabitant)
- the parent of your child
- your current or former spouse
- your current or former fiancé or fiancée
- your current or former boyfriend/girlfriend
3. Corporal Injury to Spouse
California’s corporal injury to spouse law goes a step beyond battery. It focuses on the injury that results from the hit. It specifically singles out infliction of a “corporal injury resulting in a traumatic condition.”
California provides a good definition of “traumatic condition”:
[A] “traumatic condition” means a condition of the body, such as a wound, or external or internal injury, including, but not limited to, injury as a result of strangulation or suffocation, whether of a minor or serious nature, caused by a physical force.
This last charge focuses less on the act itself and more on the effect of that act on the alleged victim. Keep in mind that under this language, the injury doesn’t have to be a great bodily injury. Even a slight physical injury like a bruise or cut can fit the statute’s definition.
Domestic Violence and Criminal Penalties
The next logical question is how the existence of domestic violence affects a potential conviction. Statutory language and penalties differ from state to state.
California law provides a helpful guide for understanding how the factor of domestic violence can affect criminal penalties.
For example, let’s say that David punches Peter in the face in Los Angeles. David and Peter are friends, but have no intimate relationship. David is charged with misdemeanor battery. In this case, if he is convicted, David faces a $2,000 fine and/or six months in the county jail.
Donna and Pauline are a long-standing non-married couple in Orange County. Donna punches Pauline in the face, but Pauline deflects most of the force of the blow and there is no physical injury or bruising. In this case, Donna still faces the possibility of a $2,000 fine. Unlike David, though, she may face up to a year in county jail.
Note: Donna’s crime is still classified as “spousal battery” under California law, even though she and Pauline are not married.
Our final hypothetical couple is married. Debbie and Paul live in San Diego. In the middle of a heated argument, Debbie punches Paul in the face. Unlike Peter and Pauline, though, Paul suffers a black eye from the impact. Debbie is charged with corporal injury to spouse. If convicted, she faces up to four years in state prison and/or a $6,000 fine.
As you can see from these examples, the severity of the criminal penalties for assault and battery increase based on two factors. The first is how close the alleged victim and perpetrator are. Crimes committed against intimate partners are punished more harshly. The second factor is the existence of a wound or mark resulting from the incident.
A noticeable wound caused against an intimate partner can be punished with incarceration eight times longer than the same act against a mere acquaintance. The monetary fine is also considerable — it’s three times greater for corporal injury to one’s spouse.
Finally, keep in mind that a corporal injury charge is a “wobbler.” This means that it may be prosecuted as either a misdemeanor or a felony.
Defenses To Domestic Violence Charges
The mere existence of an attack and injury does not mean that one will be convicted. All criminal charges must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt to get a conviction.
As with other crimes, corporal injury to a spouse can be justified with legal defenses, also known as affirmative defenses.
An affirmative defense is the assertion of facts that, if proven, should result in an acquittal even if the person committed the acts with which they were charged. Self-defense and acting under duress are common affirmative defenses in criminal law.
Self-defense laws (including stand-your-ground laws) may apply to a domestic violence case. This is particularly so where there is a home invasion by one partner. Defense of another person, particularly a child, can also constitute a compelling and successful defense.
Another less solid but frequently used defense is that the injury was the result of an accident. This defense can be challenging because, even where the facts are true, there is rarely corroborating evidence.
Whether any defense is successful would largely depend upon the facts of the specific case and the jury deciding that case. Make sure to consult with a criminal defense lawyer in order to determine whether these or other defenses may apply to your situation.
Using the Law To Keep Our Families Safe
Domestic violence laws are designed to protect individuals and their families from harm. The legal process can be painful and difficult for families already traumatized by violence. But it’s important for everybody to preserve evidence and ensure that the facts are correctly represented in court.
If you or a loved one has suffered domestic violence, or if you have been charged with domestic violence, it’s vital that you talk to a lawyer as soon as possible. Contact a qualified criminal defense attorney or law firm in your state for a free consultation and case evaluation.
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