People tend to think of domestic violence in simplistic, one-way terms. There is an abuser, and there is a victim–and that is the case in many situations. But in reality, many abusive relationships are mutually abusive–that is, both parties are physically violent with each other. Multiple studies have revealed that up to 60 percent of relationships in which domestic violence occurs are mutually abusive. When both parties allege abuse, from a legal standpoint, the situation gets very complicated very quickly—especially during the arrest and investigation process.
So the question is, how does California deal with such cases? What happens when you and your partner accuse each other of domestic violence? Let’s explore the concept of mutual abuse in California, how it impacts the legal process, and what one can expect when faced with such accusations.
Understanding Mutual Abuse
The term “mutual abuse” denotes circumstances where both individuals in a domestic relationship commit acts of abuse against each other–whether physically, psychologically, or by other means. The partners often point fingers at each other, accusing the other of violent actions. Such scenarios are common in relationships characterized by high volatility and emotional intensity. In these instances, determining the primary aggressor becomes challenging, thereby complicating the legal process significantly.
The Initial Legal Steps: Arrest and Charges
The initial step in the legal process following domestic violence accusations typically involves an arrest. If law enforcement is called to a scene and finds probable cause to believe that domestic violence has occurred, they are legally required to arrest whom they believe to be the primary aggressor. In situations of mutual violence (also called mutual combat), it’s possible (although rare) that both parties would be arrested if evidence suggests violence from both sides. In most cases, though, police will only arrest whom they believe is the primary aggressor. If you are the one arrested and can provide clear evidence that your partner was equally or more aggressive, your partner might be charged after the fact. The reverse is also true: if your partner was fingered as the primary aggressor, you could still be arrested after the fact.
Following the arrest(s), the case is forwarded to the district attorney’s office. Here, the case is reviewed thoroughly, and the decision to file charges is made. This decision hinges heavily on the evidence available, including any physical injuries sustained, statements from witnesses, and the history of violence between the parties involved.
Mutual Abuse or Self-Defense?
One of the most difficult and complicated aspects of mutual abuse is that there is often a fine line between mutual combat and self-defense. In most cases (if not all), when one spouse accuses the other, the accused will claim self-defense to avoid the charges. (California law permits an attacked party to defend themselves physically.)
The distinction between mutual combat and self-defense is often blurred by factors such as the emotional intensity of the situation, conflicting accounts of the incident, and the absence of reliable witnesses. Law enforcement officers and the prosecution must meticulously examine the physical evidence, review any prior history of violence, and consider the severity of injuries in deciding which spouse to charge with a crime–or whether to charge both.
Mutual Domestic Violence Restraining Orders
If both parties present a convincing case of alleged abuse, and if each perceives the other to be a threat, the court may issue what is known as a mutual domestic violence restraining order (also sometimes called a mutual order of protection). This type of order prohibits both parties (not just one) from contact with each other. It’s important to note that the court will not issue a mutual order enjoining the parties from specific acts of abuse unless both parties personally appear and present written evidence of abuse or violence. These orders are often seen as complex and challenging to enforce due to the nature of mutual allegations. Some legal experts even argue that they are almost always inappropriate, given the difficulty in determining culpability in these situations. (If either partner violates the order so they are near each other, how do you decide whom to charge?)
Controversy Over the Concept of Mutual Abuse
While the law makes specific provisions regarding mutual abuse, some critics argue that there is no such thing. Many therapists claim that regardless of whether both spouses accuse each other of violence (and even if both commit some type of assault), one partner always exerts control over the other in an abusive relationship–which means the other partner is acting in self-defense.
Can Both Partners Be Charged With Domestic Violence in California?
Yes, it is possible for both parties in a mutually abusive relationship to be charged with domestic violence. In situations where the evidence suggests mutual abuse (for example, when there are physical injuries on both sides), law enforcement officers and prosecutors may decide to charge both parties. However, since both parties are effectively accusing the other of abuse, determining whether to charge both parties relies heavily on the available evidence–specifically, physical evidence, witness testimonies, and the history of the relationship. Physical evidence, such as injuries, damaged furniture, or torn clothing, can indicate that a physical altercation took place. Witness testimonies can offer invaluable context about the incident, shedding light on the series of events from an external perspective. Past instances of domestic violence can also play a significant role as they may indicate a pattern of abusive behavior.
Considering the complexities involved, the need for proper legal counsel can’t be overstated if both you and your partner are alleging domestic violence (or if both of you are arrested and/or charged). Cases of alleged mutual domestic violence are tough to prove. Although it may seem unfair, the male in a heterosexual relationship typically has a higher burden to prove his innocence (since most aggressors are men). If you’re facing criminal charges in a mutual abuse case in Los Angeles, call our offices to schedule an appointment.