It seems like the epitome of cruel irony. You’ve been a victim of domestic violence by your partner for a while—perhaps even for years. Perhaps you’ve even reported it from time to time, but the problem persists. Finally…you’ve had enough. In a moment of stress, you “snap” and fight back against your abuser—only to find that now, thanks to California’s strict domestic violence laws, you’re the one who is placed under arrest!
How did this happen? How did the victim suddenly become the accused? More importantly, what happens now? Will you now go to jail while your abuser goes free? This is no doubt a complex situation, so let’s unpack it and see what we can learn.
Domestic Violence or Self-Defense?
The first question that is worth asking is, Did you actually commit a crime? After all, California law allows the use of force in self-defense. So when you fought back, were you committing a domestic violence crime, or were you simply defending yourself?
The answer to this question is not always clear, and it will likely depend on the specific facts and circumstances of your case. However, there are some general things to keep in mind:
- First—you can only use force in self-defense if you reasonably believe that you are about to be harmed or killed. This means that if you attacked your abuser without any justification, in a flare of rage, or in a premeditated manner, it’s less likely that self-defense will be a viable defense to your domestic violence charges.
- Second—even if you do have a valid self-defense argument, the amount of force you can use in response must be proportional to the threat you reasonably believe you are facing. So, if your abuser is merely pushing you and you respond by stabbing them with a kitchen knife, your claim of self-defense may be less convincing unless you can convince the judge or jury that you honestly believed your attacker was about to cause you serious harm.
- Third—it is legally possible to be both a victim and an abuser at the same time. With the exception of self-defense, California law does not differentiate between willful acts of violence or who commits them. If you retaliate to an act of violence with your own act of violence for any reason other than self-defense, your action is still a crime, and you can still theoretically be prosecuted for it—no matter how unfair it seems. (In fact, many domestic violence cases involve co-defendants who were actively fighting each other and are both charged with crimes.)
- Fourth—know that even if you are ultimately cleared of any criminal charges, fighting back against your abuser can still result in civil liability. This means that even if you are found to have acted in self-defense, your abuser could still sue you for damages (such as medical bills) resulting from the altercation.
Claiming Self-Defense when Answering Domestic Violence Charges
While it doesn’t work in all cases, self-defense is probably the most common defense used among domestic violence victims accused of retaliating against their abusers. But when can you legitimately make a claim of self-defense that will hold up in court? The answer might surprise you. A good attorney may be able to use the self-defense argument in any of the following situations:
- If you were in reasonable fear of harm because of your abuser’s immediate behavior. This is the easiest self-defense claim to prove, especially if there are witnesses, because the alleged abuser was clearly acting in a threatening manner toward you.
- If you reasonably feared harm because of your abuser’s anticipated behavior. Let’s return to the analogy of your partner shoving you, where you responded by stabbing them with a knife. To an observer, this might seem like an overreaction, but your attorney could argue that you expected your abuser to move past shoving to something more dangerous. This argument can hold up well if your partner has a documented history of violence toward you in the past.
- If you reasonably feared harm because of your abuser’s pattern of behavior. This is sometimes called the “battered person” defense, and it’s based on the theory that victims of domestic violence often live in fear long after any physical injuries have healed. (Some consider this a form of PTSD, which is also known to trigger aggression.) In other words, if you have endured a history of abuse and you reasonably believed that your abuser was about to become violent again, your attorney can argue that it was still an act of self-defense even if the action appeared to be unprovoked.
The upshot is that if you’re charged with a crime for retaliating against an abuser, the prosecutor’s main challenge is to prove your motive in doing so. As you can see by the above, self-defense may play a role in many acts of retaliation, even if it doesn’t appear obvious—as long as your motive was fear of harm. If, however, your motive was revenge—In other words, if there is evidence that your actions were planned and premeditated—it will be easier for prosecutors to convict you of a crime, even if everyone who knows the situation believes the abuser “deserved” it.
If You Are Convicted…
Suppose the worst outcome happens, and you’re convicted of domestic violence for retaliating against an abuser. If this happens, the important thing to realize is that judges will still take the circumstances into account when handing down a sentence. Even if you crossed a legal boundary by physically assaulting or injuring your abuser, your attorney can still argue for leniency by providing context that demonstrates that you were, in fact, a victim of abuse, and that you would not have committed the crime if you hadn’t been previously abused. Many judges will take these factors into account and impose modified sentences as a result.
Regardless of whether or not you were previously a victim, domestic violence is a serious accusation in California, and you don’t want to face the courts alone if you’re accused. For compassionate legal representation, call our offices today for an appointment.