California has various laws that aim to protect children's welfare. One of these is the child abuse law, which prohibits causing harm to children. The California child abuse law comes with harsher consequences for the accused. However, not every accused person is guilty of what they have been charged with. Consequently, if you have been charged with child abuse, you need expert legal counsel to help prove your innocence and avoid going to jail for something you may not have committed.

At Monterey Criminal Attorney, we know how to defend accused persons against child abuse charges. First of all, we will review your case and help you understand what you are accused of. Then, we will walk you through the possible consequences you may face and then work with you to determine compelling legal defenses against your charges. Call us to set up a free initial consultation to gain insight into your case.

Child Abuse Overview

Penal Code (PC) Section 273d of California law describes child abuse as willfully inflicting upon a child under eighteen years old any inhuman or cruel corporal punishment or injury that leads to a traumatic condition. Corporal punishment simply refers to bodily punishment, not emotional. Child abuse is also prevalently referred to as corporal injury to a child and usually falls under the domestic violence umbrella.

California law describes a traumatic condition as a wound or any other physical injury, serious or slight, inflicted through the direct utilization of force. Willfully, on the other hand, is often a target for argument in PC 273d violation cases. It obviously means the action or incident was purposeful and not accidental. Whether the perpetrator intended to harm the minor or violate the law does not matter. What matters is that they did the act that caused the injury willfully.

Examples of Acts That Constitute Child Abuse

The definition of child abuse is fairly wide and applies to multiple actions, including:

  • Slapping or hitting a minor in a manner that leaves an injury or even a mark
  • Shaking a child so forcefully that it causes brain damage and other injuries.
  • Throwing objects at a minor or throwing the minor
  • Burning a minor
  • Choking, pushing, kicking, or punching a child
  • Intentionally causing cigarette burns to a minor

The list is endless. Any action that hurts a child is considered child abuse, provided it is inhuman, or inflicts a traumatic condition on the child. California law does not particularly define the phrase “cruel or human.” However, a jury gives the terms their ordinary meanings. This grants juries great discretion to decide whether actions that do not inflict harm are abuse.

Spanking Is Not a Child Abuse Act

Technically, California statute does not classify spanking as abuse against a child, provided it is inexcessive given the situation and falls within the parameters of reasonable discipline.

However, the issue of what is and is not reasonable discipline remains a gray area, and juries and judges have much discretion to determine if and when a spanking incident is child abuse. Spankings that would be deemed reasonable are spanking a minor with an item, for example, a paddle or belt or using a plain hand. But then again, this area of the law is controversial, and the jury in your case may rule that spanking with a hand was excessive and unreasonable.

Elements Making Up the Crime of PC 273d, Child Abuse

Per the child abuse definition, to be convicted of the charges against you, the district attorney must establish specific facts beyond any reasonable doubt. These facts are the ones we call elements making up the crime. The prosecuting attorney must show that:

  • You deliberately subjected a minor to cruel corporal punishment or injury.
  • The punishment caused the child to suffer a traumatic condition
  • You were unreasonably disciplining the victim when you imposed the punishment

Note that California has a mandatory reporting law (the Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting Act) that necessitates some professionals to report if they observe any incident they believe is child neglect or abuse. These professionals are termed mandated reporters, and they include school teachers, doctors, nurses, social workers, clergy, and school administrators.

Any mandated reporter who does not make a mandatory report has committed a misdemeanor offense. They could even be subject to a jail term.

Evidently, child neglect and abuse are criminal acts in all states, but California laws are stringent to ensure minors are protected. Consequently, it can be challenging for parents to tell the difference between child abuse and reasonable discipline, and even harder to argue these scenarios in court.

Prior Child Abuse Violations Considered

Being accused of abusing a child will be disadvantageous to you since it is among the few offenses for which previous offenses of child abuse may be considered evidence against a defendant, whether or not they were found guilty of them.

Whereas priors are usually inadmissible for other offenses, California admits them in PC 273d violation cases to establish patterns of abuse. This is an exception to the general rule of evidence, which provides that past convictions cannot be admitted to find a defendant guilty since it would be deemed too prejudicial. But, in child abuse cases, prior convictions are used to substantiate that the perpetrator has a propensity towards violence.

Fortunately, before the prosecution can submit evidence of past child abuse acts, a judge must schedule a court proceeding to decide if it is valuable enough to outweigh the odds of prejudice. During the proceeding, the presiding judge considers various factors, including:

  • Corroborating evidence for the earlier accusations,
  • If the evidence will excessively prejudge the jury and
  • The period between the previous and current act, which usually must have happened within ten years

Generally, the prosecution cannot introduce this kind of evidence when the supposed act happened ten or more years ago.  Here, the prosecutor can only admit the evidence if the court judge finds that it serves the interests of justice.

Additionally, there are various cases where the D.A. may be permitted to admit evidence of previous domestic abuse acts to assist them in proving their child abuse case. The D.A. can do that only if this is factual:

  • The current charges are for abuse perpetrated against the accused person’s child, a minor who stays with the accused person, or a child who regularly lived with the accused person before
  • The domestic abuse accusations were for actions happening within the last five years, and the victim was a spouse, live-in boyfriend or girlfriend, the parent of the accused person's minor, or somebody with whom the accused person had a serious romantic relationship.

That is why it is critical to have an experienced defense lawyer by your side when fighting child abuse charges.

Like the evidence for prior PC 273d violations, the judge must schedule a court hearing to establish whether evidence of past domestic violence is appropriate. In this case, the judge will look at whether the evidence is too prejudicial or tends to reveal a general tendency toward violence.

Penalties of Child Abuse

Violating Section 273d of the Penal Code is deemed a wobbler violation. That means it is a crime that the district attorney can charge as a felony or misdemeanor, depending on the defendant's criminal history and various case facts, like the extent of the injuries inflicted on the victim.

If you are a first offender and your violation is not serious, you will likely face misdemeanor charges. You will more likely face felony charges if your conduct was cruel, you have a past child abuse conviction or a conviction for a related offense, and the harm you inflicted was more severe.

If convicted of a misdemeanor, your punishment will include 12 months in custody and a fine not exceeding $6,000. Alternatively, the judge may sentence you to summary probation instead of jail. If found criminally liable for a felony, your consequences will include a prison term of two, four, or six years and a fine not exceeding $6,000. Alternatively, the judge can sentence you to felony probation rather than jail.

Sentence Enhancement

Your custody period will increase by four years if you have a past conviction for child abuse, unless you finished serving prison time for every prior conviction over ten years ago and have never served time in custody for any felony crime in the past ten years.

Probation Sentence

For either a misdemeanor or felony conviction, the judge can review the case facts and consider sentencing you to summary or formal probation, respectively, instead of jail.

The probation, usually lasting at least three years, might come with given terms and conditions, some of which could be mandatory and some optional. Standard probation terms the judge may impose for a child abuse conviction include the following:

  • The requirement to see your probation officer regularly
  • A restraining order prohibiting contact with the victim. This may include a stay-away and residence exclusion court order
  • Mandatory child abuser's counseling program for at least 12 months
  • If you were drunk or high when you committed the crime, you may be directed to submit to random drug testing.

Should you fail to adhere to even one of the imposed probation terms, the judge can revoke your probation sentence, issue a bench warrant against you, and sentence you to a jail term. The alternative to jail time for violating probation is to impose new, harsher terms.

If you obey all the terms of your probation, the judge may agree to end your probation sentence early. Often, this necessitates showing that you have complied with the terms for at least two years. Usually, a petition for early termination of probation is brought along with the petition for expunging the conviction and the request to lower a wobbler felony to misdemeanor charges.

PC 273d Violations As a Strike Offense

Sometimes, felony child abuse is considered a strike state's three strikes law. This is primarily the case where the child suffered significant bodily injury because of the abuse act. A single conviction for a strike offense on your criminal record implies you will face a double sentence for your subsequent felony conviction. If you have three strike convictions, you will be subject to a mandatory minimum term ranging from twenty-five years in prison to life imprisonment.

Related Crimes to Child Abuse

Based on the facts, you may find yourself accused of one or several of these related crimes instead of or alongside child abuse.

PC 273a, Child Endangerment

PC 273a defines child endangerment as intentionally subjecting a minor to unnecessary suffering, pain, or danger, irrespective of whether bodily injury indeed occurred. Child endangerment is usually prosecuted alongside PC 273d violations since it creates a traumatic environment in which the supposed abuser occurred. Confusingly, this violation is, at times, also known as child abuse.

However, unlike PC 273d violations, child endangerment does not require the infliction of bodily harm. You can be charged with child endangerment when you place a minor in a scenario in which they or their health could be endangered. Violating PC 273a is considered a wobbler offense. Possible consequences are like those of child abuse.

PC 270, Child Neglect

PC 270 describes child neglect as the wanton failure to provide basic needs such as medical care, food, shelter, or clothing for a child under your care. This crime is often a misdemeanor. Consequences include a maximum of 12 months of custody and a court fine of up to two thousand dollars. But if a criminal or civil court has made a finding of neglect in the past, violating PC 279 will become a wobbler. That means you could be charged with felony child neglect. If convicted of a felony, you will face more severe penalties, including sixteen months, two years, or three years in prison.

Domestic Abuse

Also known as domestic violence, domestic abuse encompasses several statutes against inflicting criminal threats, trauma, or harm on an ex or current intimate partner (such as a current or ex-spouse, domestic partner, boyfriend or girlfriend, fiance or fiancee), children, the elderly, and other family members.

Child abuse usually happens in the domestic abuse context, so it is generally common for defendants to face prosecution under domestic violence laws alongside child abuse.

Common domestic violence charges include PC 243e1, domestic battery; PC 422, criminal threats; PC 368, elder abuse; and PC 273.5, corporal injury upon a spouse. These offenses are generally wobblers.

PC 242, Battery

PC 242 describes battery as wilfully using violence or force, no matter how slight, on someone else. You could be found guilty of battery rather than child abuse if the physical force you inflicted upon the victim did not meet the definition of cruel punishment or lead to a traumatic condition.

Battery is considered a misdemeanor offense. Possible consequences include a maximum of six months in jail and a court fine not exceeding $2,000.

Valid Defenses Against Child Abuse Accusations

Considering how sensitive child abuse cases are and the thin line between abuse and reasonable abuse, it is not uncommon for people to be wrongly accused of violating PC 273d. An experienced criminal defense lawyer can review the circumstances surrounding your case and argue the following legal defenses to prove your innocence:

You Were Wrongly Accused

Sadly, false accusations are not unusual in all kinds of PC 273d violation cases. The accusations often arise from family conflicts, and motives for these false allegations may include jealousy, anger, bitterness, revenge, the urge to have power over another, the effort to have an advantage in a divorce, custody, or visitation case, and the urge to punish an ex or present romantic partner. 

Mostly, child abuse allegations are leveled against step-parents or a parent’s newly-found romantic partner. The party who does not have custody makes these accusations (for example, your angry ex-spouse or child's parent might have accused you falsely for wanting to take revenge against you or due to vindictiveness or jealousy). At times, the victims themselves make the accusations because they are upset after finding out their mother or father has another intimate partner.

Alternatively, it could be that a mandated reporter on child abuse cases overreacted. As we mentioned, mandated reporters have the legal obligation to report any instances of abuse against children. Failure to which they risk going to jail. Therefore, these reporters are under a lot of pressure to report even the slightest suspicion of child abuse. That said, these reporters may make a report while thinking they are doing their job when, in fact, they have misinterpreted the situation.

The Injury Did Not Result from Abuse

Minors suffer injuries from different causes, some of which might not be known even to their parents or guardians until the injuries manifest. It could be that the child suffered the injury due to bullying, and they are scared to inform their parents. Alternatively, it could be that the minor had a minor accident or was involved in a fight at their school. This could result in a person who only means well making their report to the police.

If that happened in your case, your lawyer could request that a forensic expert or doctor independently analyze the supposed injuries. The analysis may reveal that you are being unjustly prosecuted due to misleading or false evidence.

The Injury Inflicted Was Accidental

The prosecution must demonstrate an intention to hurt the child in order to have the judge convict you of child abuse. If you did not mean to hit or strike the minor, your lawyer may argue that the resulting harm was only accidental. Accidental injuries to a minor should not lead to a guilty verdict. An exception could be if you were unnecessarily aggressive or behaved recklessly.

Acts considered accidental injuries include the following:

  • Accidentally striking a child so hard while assisting them in practicing karate
  • Swinging a child by their arm, attempting to make them laugh, and unintentionally pulling one of the arms from its socket.
  • Slamming an automobile door without noticing a child's hand was in the jam.

However, being overly aggressive during an otherwise acceptable playing activity could lead to a conviction for child abuse.

A skilled attorney will present your account of events in court to prove that the child's injury was due to an accident.

You Were Reasonably Disciplining Your Child

Another valid argument to contest your child abuse allegations is the controversial matter of disciplining a child. Evidently, all parents are entitled to discipline their minors with some level of corporal punishment, even by using a belt.

But the discipline must be reasonable. It should also not inflict any severe bodily injury. Unfortunately, spanking can, at times, lead to abuse charges. It could be that a mandated reporter saw a red spot on the alleged victim and overreacted. Alternatively, it could be that a jealous ex-spouse utilized the spanking as a basis to file false allegations.

Whatever the case, if the jury reviews the presented evidence and deduces that the punishment you gave your child was reasonable considering the circumstances, they will find you not guilty. Simply put, some severe and too-aggressive spankings could result in a child abuse conviction.

It is important to note that this legal defense will be particularly productive if the child has no signs of injury or visible marks on their body.

You can also argue general defenses like police misconduct and mistaken identity to fight the charges of child abuse against you.

Find an Experienced Domestic Violence Defense Lawyer Near Me

Given that the punishment for a child abuse conviction is severe and false accusations are also uncommon, you need expert legal representation if charged. A lawyer will review the case and determine the best way to help you beat your charges.

At Monterey Criminal Attorney, we boast the knowledge, experience, and skills to defend our clients against simple and intricate child abuse charges. We will assist you in navigating the intimidating and complex criminal justice system, as we have a track record of representing clients in these cases.

With decades of combined experience in criminal law, we will work closely with you to develop a solid defense to obtain the most favorable outcome. Call us at 831-574-1791 for a comprehensive, confidential initial consultation.