When Does Emotional Abuse Become a Criminal Act in California?

Domestic-Violence-Charges-210x300It’s a scenario that can be both surprising and shocking. You have a verbal disagreement with your spouse or domestic partner (as most couples do). Emotions get heated, and you say some things you shouldn’t have said—and maybe didn’t mean. Someone observes the argument and calls the cops—or maybe your partner makes the call herself. A short time later, you get a visit from the police and find yourself arrested on charges of domestic violence or accused of making criminal threats—even though you never physically touched your spouse!

How could this happen? Could you actually be convicted of domestic violence under these circumstances? Theoretically, you could—especially if your heated exchange included verbal threats. Let’s talk about how California law views emotional abuse as part of domestic violence and when heated words might cross the line into a criminal act.

Emotional Abuse and Domestic Violence

Most people might not think of emotional abuse as a crime, but under California’s domestic violence law, it can be. California law defines domestic violence to include any kind of willful conduct that causes an intimate partner or family member to experience physical injury, sexual assault, threats, stalking, or other crimes where there is no physical contact. This includes the use of words and actions that are intended to control, intimidate or subjugate someone else through fear.

While many states only recognize domestic abuse as various forms of physical contact, California law identifies non-physical forms of abuse because these often contribute to larger patterns of abuse, which seek to control the other person through fear. Emotional abuse falls under this definition if it creates a situation in which the victim has reasonable cause for alarm about their safety because they have been threatened with serious bodily harm.

When Is Emotional Abuse Considered Domestic Violence?

Let’s be clear: prosecutors can’t and won’t charge you with domestic violence simply for saying things in anger. Most of us have said things we didn’t mean in an argument, and the words themselves don’t constitute a crime. Where the words fall under the definition of emotional abuse (and by extension, domestic violence) is when they make your partner feel “reasonable apprehension of imminent serious bodily injury to himself or herself, or another.” (See California Penal Code 13700 PC.)

Emotional abuse, then, is considered a crime when it rises to the level of intentional threat. If you’ve said things in anger that were hurtful but not threatening, then it’s probably not going to rise to this level and won’t be considered domestic violence or a criminal act. But if you have said words meant to instill fear—”I’ll kill you” is a classic example—and your spouse or partner reasonably perceives this as a serious threat and not simply words spoken in anger, then prosecutors could charge you with domestic violence.

Common Examples of Criminal Emotional Abuse

To provide a better understanding of when emotional abuse is considered a crime under domestic violence laws, let’s give a few examples:

  • Criminal threats (PC 422)–threatening to kill or seriously harm the other person in a way that convinces them that you mean it, thereby instilling fear.
  • Stalking (PC 646.9)–harassing/threatening the other person in a way that makes them fear for their safety (even if no specific threats are made).
  • Aggravated trespass (PC 601)–entering the other person’s home or workplace with the intent of carrying out a criminal threat (even if no physical contact is made)
  • Cyber harassment–using the Internet to inflict emotional distress. (For example, revenge porn or posting harmful material.)

Proving Emotional Abuse as an Act of Domestic Violence

It is understandably more difficult for prosecutors to prove non-physical forms of domestic violence because there are no outward signs of injury. In many cases, it’s a matter of he-said-she-said, and there is also the matter of proving intent. (Remember, for it to be a crime, you have to intend harm, not just say the words.) However, there are ways for them to demonstrate emotional abuse as part of a larger pattern of abusive behavior. Examples of evidence they may use to prove their case against you include:

  • Threatening texts and emails
  • Audio or video recordings of your altercations
  • Eyewitness testimony

The more evidence prosecutors can provide citing multiple incidents, the better they may be able to establish a pattern of threatening behavior–and this pattern is how they may be able to procure a conviction on the grounds of emotional abuse.

Defending Against Charges of Emotional Abuse

If you’ve been charged with domestic violence in California and the criminal act centers on non-physical forms of abuse, there are steps you can take to defend yourself against these charges. Prosecutors can’t just argue that your partner felt threatened and therefore you committed a crime—they have to provide evidence to back that claim. Remember that when it comes to proving emotional abuse as a crime, prosecutors must prove that:

  1. Your words or actions caused your partner to reasonably fear you might harm them; and
  2. You intended to cause this fear.

Thus, the most common way a good attorney can defend you against these charges is by presenting evidence that refutes one or both of these elements. Common defenses include:

  • You didn’t intend harm by your words (i.e., you didn’t mean it).
  • You were not aware that your actions or words were causing fear for the other person’s safety.
  • You didn’t invoke a credible threat.
  • You didn’t intend to carry out the threat.
  • You didn’t attempt to carry out the threat.
  • No physical contact was made. (It is easier for prosecutors to “tack on” emotional abuse when there is other evidence of physical violence. Without physical evidence, emotional abuse is more difficult to prove.)

Whether your domestic violence arrest came from an argument that got out of hand, a simple misunderstanding, or even a vindictive false accusation, don’t make the assumption that you’ll escape conviction simply because you made no physical contact. Emotional abuse is a valid form of domestic violence in California, and while it’s difficult to prove, it can still result in criminal convictions and jail time. For compassionate legal representation and to reduce your chances of severe domestic violence consequences in Los Angeles, call our offices today to schedule a consultation.

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