California Penal Code Elements for Child Abuse
California Penal Code 273(d) governs the child abuse law, otherwise known as corporal injury on a child. This section makes it a crime to impose physical injury or cruel punishment on a child.
Child abuse is defined as the willful infliction of either of the following on a minor under the age of 18.
· Any cruel or inhuman corporal (bodily) injury, or
· Any injury that results in a traumatic condition
Definitions to Better Understand Child Abuse
To better understand the child abuse crime, some additional definitions are required. Corporal injury simply means physical, as opposed to emotional, injury. An injury that is inflicted willfully is inflicted on purpose.
A traumatic condition is a wound or other bodily injury caused by the direct application of physical force, regardless of whether the injury is minor or serious.
The term “cruel and inhuman” is not defined under California law, so juries will give the words their ordinary meaning. This means that a jury has a lot of power in deciding what constitutes as cruel and inhuman.
Examples of Child Abuse Acts
Some examples of child abuse include slapping, punching, hitting, kicking, pushing, shaking, choking, burning, or throwing a child. This is not an exhaustive list by any means. Any act that injures a minor can be considered child abuse if it causes a traumatic condition or is “cruel and inhuman.”
Is “Spanking” Considered Child Abuse?
Spanking is not considered child abuse in California if it is for disciplinary purposes and is not excessive under the circumstances. This applies to both spanking with a bare hand and an object (belt or paddle). However, this is a very controversial area in the law, so it can change as the times change, and again, a jury will decide what is excessive or not.
Prior Convictions and Acts of Child Abuse and/or Domestic Violence
Typically, prior acts by the defendant are not admissible against the defendant in trial. That is not the case in child abuse cases. Whether the defendant was previously convicted or not, prior acts of child abuse are admissible against the defendant under a special exception in the California evidence laws.
Prior to admitting the defendant’s prior acts, the judge will hold a hearing, outside the presence of the jury, to determine if the act is admissible. If the judge rules that it is, it can be used against the defendant in trial. The judge will consider the age of the prior act, if it is unduly prejudicial, and whether there is corroborating evidence of the act or prior conviction.
The same is for prior domestic violence charges; they may be able to be admitted at trial after a hearing in front of the judge, even in child abuse cases.
California has mandatory reporting laws that requires certain professions to report suspected instances of child abuse and neglect. Teachers, social workers, medical staff, and childcare workers are all mandatory reporters.
Charging a Child Abuse Crime - What is a “Wobbler” Offense?
Corporal injury on a child is a “wobbler” offense in California, meaning the prosecution has discretion as to whether to charge the crime as a misdemeanor or felony.
The prosecutor considers many factors when making this decision, including the facts of the offense, the defendant’s criminal history, the injury on the child, and the act itself. Again, this list is not exhaustive.
Misdemeanor Conviction Penalties
For a misdemeanor child abuse conviction, the penalties can include up to one year in county jail and/or up to a $6,000 fine.
Felony Conviction Penalties
For a felony child abuse conviction, the penalties can include up to six years in state prison and/or a fine up to $6,000. The prison sentence can increase, or be enhanced, if the defendant has prior felony child abuse convictions within the last 10 years.
Additionally, any felony child abuse conviction that involves great bodily harm does count under California’s three strikes law.
Possible Probation Sentence
In cases where the harm to the child is less serious, it is possible for a judge to sentence a defendant to probation, either misdemeanor or felony probation. However, this is entirely in the judge’s discretion and is dependent on several circumstances, including the severity of any injuries.
When/if a defendant is sentenced to probation, there may be other conditions placed upon the defendant, such as a minimum of three years of probation, a protective (restraining) order, and mandatory child abuser’s treatment program lasting one year. The judge can also order random drug testing.
Legal Defenses to Child Abuse
Though child abuse is a serious crime, there are multiple common legal defenses to fight the charge. An experienced criminal attorney will be able to advise someone facing these charges on all their options. Some defenses include:
· The defendant was legally discipling their child
· The defendant was the victim of a false accusation
· The defendant was wrongly accused for injuries by another’s conduct
· The injury to the child was an accident
Additional Charges Relating to Child Abuse
Along with a child abuse charge under Penal Code 273(d), those facing a child abuse charge are often charged with other crimes as well. Related offenses include child endangerment charges, Penal Code 273(a), and/or child neglect charges, Penal Code 270.