How Is "Child Abuse" Defined in California?
The first thing to understand about how child abuse charges are handled in California is that they fall within the scope of California's domestic violence laws. These laws provide enhanced punishments based on a special relationship or special status of a victim.
For example, domestic assault or battery against a spouse, former spouse, romantic partner, or the parent of your child bring increased penalties compared to "ordinary" assault or battery.
Second, understand that since plaintiffs often change their stories and seek to cancel a filed charge, the state does not allow them to be in control of whether or not charged continue to be pressed. This is done for fear that victims will be intimidated into dropping the charges.
Third, you should also realize that all kinds of domestic violence and abuse charges are among the most common to turn out to be false accusations. It is very common, unfortunately, for people to level these kinds of allegations out of anger, jealousy, or to purposefully destroy someone else's reputation.
PC 273d (Child Abuse)
The crime of "child abuse" is defined under California Penal Code Section 273d as inflicting corporal punishment/injury in a cruel/inhumane way on a child. Note that any resultant injury, even a very slight one, can still qualify an act as child abuse.
Note that PC 273a (child endangerment) and PC 270 (child neglect) are closely related offenses, they are distinct under California law. (We give a brief summary of these two related offenses at the end of this article.)
PC 273d, child abuse, does not disallow the parental right to discipline children with corporal punishment, including spanking, but it addresses "unreasonable" discipline that is "cruel" and results in injury to the child. The child abuse does not address emotional or psychological abuse, though that can be charged under other statutes.
Examples of what would qualify as child abuse under PC 273d include: beating a child with a belt, hitting or slapping so as to leave marks, and bruising a minor during a fight with him/her.
The Elements of the Crime
In order for the prosecution to gain a conviction on a child abuse charge, the following elements of the crime must be established beyond all reasonable doubt:
- The defendant cruelly or inhumanely punished a child or punished him/her in such a way as to produce a physical injury.
- The punishment or action resulted in a "traumatic condition."
- The defendant acted "willfully" in what he/she did.
- The defendant cannot be said to have been merely administering "reasonable" disciplinary measures.
"Willful" does not mean the defendant knew his/her actions were illegal or intended to injure the child. It only means that the action was intentional (not an accident.)
Child abuse can apply to any minor, defined as one under the age of 18.
While cruel and inhuman are not defined specifically in the statute, the idea of "cruel" is done in a vindictive manner, and "inhuman" means inhumane, lacking of ordinary pity. The specific action could be any variety of things, from burning with cigarette buts to throwing a hardball at a child's head to shaking a child violently because he/she won't sleep or stop crying.
But spanking with the hand (not fist) or using traditional switches/paddles in a normal fashion is NOT child abuse.
"Traumatic condition" in PC 273d has a wider meaning than in colloquial usage. It means any physical injury whatsoever.
How Priors Affect Child Abuse Cases
For most criminal charges in California, prior violations or alleged violations are not admissible as evidence in court. But, child abuse cases are an exception to this rule. Your past criminal record can (and will) be used against you by the prosecutor.
Your prior convictions for child abuse or other related/relevant crimes can be brought up in court. And even past allegations that were never proved can be brought up. This makes it all the more crucial to have a skilled criminal defense lawyer, experienced in this practice area, fighting on your side.
However, the judge may or may not allow any particular evidence of prior criminal activity. There is a special hearing at which the prosecutor must argue it should be admitted, and we will argue against its admission. If past allegations/convictions would unduly prejudice the jury, are weak or unproved, were done more than 10 years ago, or is simply not sufficiently relevant to the case at hand, we can likely get such evidence excluded.
But note that any prior domestic violence incident especially is likely to be brought up based on the idea that it shows "a propensity" toward violence in general. It might not be fair, but it's the law, and it only underscores the importance of having a strong legal presence at the hearing that determines which evidence will be allowed.
PC 273d (child abuse) can be either a misdemeanor or felony, depending on the facts of the case and on the defendant's prior criminal record.
Charged as a misdemeanor, child abuse is punishable by:
- Up to 12 months in county jail.
- A maximum fine of $6,000.
- Both the fine and jail time.
Charged as a felony, child abuse is punishable by:
- From 2 to 6 years in state prison.
- A fine as high as $6,000.
A repeat offense will add 4 years to your incarceration period, unless you have been out of jail/prison for at least the past 10 years.
Most child abuse convictions will involve a probationary period as part of the sentence. This may take the place of the jail/prison time or it may be sentenced along with it (for after you get out).
Typically, your probation will last at least three years, will include some sort of protective order, will subject you to randomized drug/alcohol testing (if you committed the act while intoxicated), and will require you complete a 12-month counseling course.
Note that failure to follow all probationary terms can result in a re-arrest and going to jail/prison instead of being out on probation any longer. But by fulfilling all probationary terms, it is often possible to end the probation early.
If "great bodily injury" was inflicted in the act of child abuse, it is a "strike" under California's Three Strikes Law. Strikes increase the penalties of any future felony convictions. A second strike doubles any jail/prison term, and a third strike leads to 25 years to life imprisonment.
Common Defense Strategies
At Long Beach Criminal Defense Attorneys, we have deep experience in defending against all manner of child abuse charges. We understand what works where and when and why. We know when to accept a plea deal, when to fight for a better offer, when to win in the initial hearing by keeping evidence out of court (getting a dismissal as a result), and when the battle is best fought through arguments and evidence leading to an acquittal.
Here are some of the defense strategies that we often use in winning child abuse defense cases:
- False Accusation
It is very common for child abuse to be falsely filed against someone, and thus, "false accusation" is probably the single most common defense. It may be a spouse or other current or former romantic partner is seeking revenge. In child custody conflicts, a child abuse accusation may be invented in order to get you out of the child's life and thus sever the last tie between you and a former romantic partner. We know how to get to the bottom of it all and expose false testimony for what it is through cross-examination and other methods.
- Injury From Another Cause
Merely pointing out a physical injury of a child is not enough to prove someone guilty of inflicting that injury. It could be the injury resulted from an entirely different source. It may be the child fell, bumped into something, fought with another child at school, got a sports injury, or any number of things. Since the Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting Act requires doctors, school personnel, and some others to report a suspected incident of child abuse under threat of penalty, many times, a report is made when no one purposefully injured the child.
- Accidental Injury
While similar to the above-mentioned defense, "accidental injury" refers to when you did cause the injury but not "willfully." If you accidentally hit a child with a cast baseball or with a swung baseball bat, close a door while a young child's fingers are in the door, or in any way caused an injury while not intending the action, it is not child abuse. If you acted in anger or purposefully did something to the child, but not realizing it was illegal or would cause an injury, that can still lead to a conviction. But a pure accident is grounds for a dismissal or acquittal.
- Mistaken Identity
It is possible that the wrong person was accused of child abuse. You may have been assumed guilty based on circumstantial evidence or because someone thought your were the sort of person who would do such a thing, but that is not proof. It is even possible that a child was coaxed into saying so and so did it or was afraid to tell who really did it.
- Parental Discipline
Parents have the right to discipline their child in a reasonable way for the child's own benefit. If the discipline can be reasonably shown to have been necessary and reasonable, not excessive, and not cruel or inhumane, then you have won your case.
Related offenses that may come up during a child abuse case, as an alternate charge or additional charge, include these:
- Child Endangerment (PC 273a)
PC 273a also concerns intentionally harming a child, but it does not require as does PC 273d that any actual physical harm occurred. It only requires that one willfully placed a child in a situation where he/she was likely to suffer physical injury.
PC 273a can be a misdemeanor or felony. As a misdemeanor, it is punishable by up to 12 months in jail. If great bodily injury was likely, it is a felony, punishable by 2 to 6 years in prison.
- Child Neglect (PC 270)
Failing to provide proper care for a child, meaning "necessities" such as food, clothes, shelter, and medical attention, is child neglect under PC 270. The neglect must have been done willfully, unlawfully, and without a valid "excuse."
Normally, PC 270 is a misdemeanor, punishable by up to 12 months in jail and a $2,000 fine. If a father whose paternity has been questioned in the past and who has been convicted of child neglect in the past is charged, it can be a felony.
Contact Us Today For Help
At Long Beach Criminal Defense Attorneys, we stand ready to rush to your assistance with top-tier legal advice and representation anytime 24/7.
Our legal team can get started on your case as soon as you call us at (562) 308-7807 and choose us to represent you.
Your initial consultation is free and no-obligation and can be done over the phone or at our Long Beach office.