Whether a domestic violence incident is charged as a misdemeanor or a felony will depend on the specific type of domestic violence charge (and sometimes even the prosecutor’s discretion). Depending on the circumstances, a domestic violence incident could result in a misdemeanor, felony, or serious/violent felony charge, all of which come with varied penalties and punishments.
Here is a breakdown of the basic types of domestic violence-related charges in California:
Domestic battery: California Penal Code 243 defines domestic battery as the “willful and unlawful use of force or violence” against a spouse; a person with whom the defendant is cohabitating; the other parent of the defendant’s child; a former spouse; a current or former fiancé(é); or person with whom the defendant has (or previously had) a dating or engagement relationship. In other words, one commits this crime by striking an intimate partner in some violent way that causes a visible injury (including a bruise or swelling). Domestic battery is a misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in jail, up to $2,000 in fines, or both. If probation is granted to the defendant, he or she must participate in a domestic violence offenders program or other similar counseling program.
Criminal threats: Under California Penal Code 422, you are guilty of criminal threats if you willfully threaten to commit a crime that will result in death or great bodily injury to another person—regardless of the intent to actually carry it out. It counts as making criminal threats as long as the threat is “unequivocal, unconditional, immediate, and specific as to convey to the person threatened” and causes the person to fear for his or her own safety or the safety of his or her family.
Criminal threats is a wobbler, meaning the prosecutor can choose to charge it as a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on the circumstances of the case. As a misdemeanor, making a criminal threat is punishable by up to one year in county jail. Felony criminal threats are punishable by up to four years in state prison (and using a dangerous or deadly weapon increases the sentence by one year). It is important to note that making criminal threats counts as a strike under the California Three Strikes Law, so you must serve 85 percent of your sentence before becoming eligible for parole.
Corporal injury to spouse or cohabitant: California Penal Code 273.5 states that you are guilty of corporal injury to a spouse or cohabitant if you “willfully inflict corporal injury resulting in traumatic condition.” The difference between a domestic battery charge and a corporal injury charge is the presence of a visible physical injury; even if the injury is as small as a bruise or swelling, there must be some sort of concrete physical injury for the incident to count as corporal injury. Corporal injury to a spouse or cohabitant is a wobbler and can be charged as either a misdemeanor or felony. As a misdemeanor, corporal injury to an intimate partner is punishable by up to one year in county jail and a fine of up to $6,000. As a felony, it is punishable by two, three, or four years in state prison and a fine of up to $6,000.