Child abuse is among the most serious and life-changing offenses one could be charged with. Due to how seriously it’s prosecuted, this offense has strict penalties and lengthy guidelines, which may include the loss of your child or your job. Therefore, California has strict laws on child abuse reporting as an attempt to eliminate these types of cases. Unfortunately, it’s these strict reporting laws that may lead to hurried assumptions, resulting in several people to be wrongfully accused of child abuse.
Thus, it’s important that as soon as you are charged with child abuse, you contact an experienced attorney, so you are not wrongfully convicted. At Darwish Law, we provide comprehensive legal representation to any resident of Santa Ana who is facing these charges. The many years of experience of our attorneys have enabled them to build a strong defense that may lead to a charge reduction or case dismissal. Through this article, we will expound more on what California law says about child abuse.
Definition of Child Abuse
The California Child abuse offense is defined under Penal Code (PC) 273d as the intentional infliction of inhuman or cruel corporal punishment, or any injury that causes a distressing condition on a child under the age of eighteen years.
Corporal punishment refers to physical, and not emotional punishment while a distressing condition means a physical injury, whether serious or minor, resulting from the direct use of force. Acts that count as child abuse include punching, hitting, kicking, slapping, shaking, pushing, burning, choking, and any other inhuman or cruel act that causes an injury to a child.
It is worth noting that spanking in California isn’t considered an act of child abuse unless it is excessive given the circumstances, and it’s not for the purposes of disciplining the child. The exceptions apply to both spanking using an object like a paddle and belt, and spanking using a bare hand.
Elements of Child Abuse
To show that you are guilty of Penal Code 273d, the prosecuting attorney has to prove various facts, also known as elements of the crime. Every fact has to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt for a conviction to happen. The following is what the prosecutor should prove:
- You intentionally inflicted inhuman or cruel physical punishment or harm on a child
- The punishment or injury you inflicted resulted in a distressing physical condition
- When you acted, you were not fairly disciplining the child
How Previous Child Abuse Acts Can Impact Your Case
Your previous child abuse cases can be admitted into evidence when facing new charges of child abuse. The acts will be used even if you were not convicted. This is contrary to what the California general rule of evidence provides. The general rule provides that previous convictions might not be used to convict a person of an offense. This is because such proof is generally deemed to be overly prejudicial.
However, in alleged cases of child abuse, previous convictions may be admissible in court to prove that the accused has a habit of causing violence. The brighter side of this is that before these previous cases can be admitted into evidence, the judge has to conduct a hearing that determines whether or not the value of those cases outweighs the possibility of prejudice. The judge considers the following factors during the hearing:
- Whether or not there’s corroborating proof for the previous allegations
- Whether or not the proposed proof will overly prejudice the jury
- The period that has passed between the present charges and the previous acts
Generally, the prosecuting attorney may not admit into evidence previous acts if the acts took place over ten years ago. If that is the case, then the proof will be permitted only in case the judge determines that it’s in the best interests of justice.
How Previous Domestic Violence Acts Can Impact Your Child Abuse Case
In certain cases, the prosecuting attorney may admit into evidence your previous domestic violence acts to help substantiate the allegations of child abuse. However, he or she can only do so if the following is true:
- The present allegations are for child abuse against your child, a child who frequently lives with you, or a child who used to live with you frequently.
- The allegations of domestic violence were for cases within the preceding five years and had to do with a girlfriend/boyfriend that was living with you, a spouse, your child’s mother/father, or a person you were seriously dating.
As it is with proof of previous child abuse, a hearing has to be conducted to rule on whether proof of previous domestic violence can be admissible in court. In this hearing, the judge considers whether or not the proof is unduly prejudicial or it is prone to show a general inclination towards violence.
Penalties for Child Abuse
California PC 273d is a wobbler offense, meaning that the prosecuting attorney can choose to charge it either as a felony or a misdemeanor. The choice depends on the facts of the crime, the criminal history of the defendant, and in certain cases, evidence of previous child abuse or domestic violence acts.
If it is your first offense and it is a minor case, it is a misdemeanor offense. On the other hand, you will most likely be charged with a felony if your act was cruel or inhuman, the injury you inflicted on the minor was very severe, and you have one or several previous child abuse convictions or past convictions of related offenses.
A child abuse misdemeanor offense is punished by a maximum of one year of a county jail sentence, a maximum fine of $6,000, and summary probation. The penalties for a felony conviction include up to six years of prison and a maximum fine of $6,000. You may also be sentenced to formal probation as an alternative to a prison sentence.
Sentence Enhancement for Previous Child Abuse Convictions
If you have been convicted of child abuse before, your jail sentence will be increased by four years. However, the sentence enhancement will not happen if you have not been convicted of any felony crime in the past ten years, and you finished serving the jail term for the previous conviction over ten years ago.
Child Abuse Probation Conditions
If convicted of abuse against a minor, you can be sentenced to formal or informal probation rather than serving time in jail. The judge may sentence you to probation irrespective of whether your case is a felony or a misdemeanor. However, a probation sentence comes with various conditions. Few of these conditions are mandatory, while others are optional. They include:
- You must serve at least three years of the probation term
- You have to report to the probation officer frequently
- A protective, stay away, or residence exclusion order for the child abuse victim will be issued
- A compulsory child abuser’s treatment counseling program that lasts at least a year
- If you were intoxicated with alcohol, drugs, or both during the commission of the child abuse act, you would undergo random drug and alcohol testing
If you violate any of the terms of probation mentioned above, the judge may cancel your probation. He or she may then issue an arrest warrant against you and have you jailed. Similarly, the judge may issue new conditions of probation that are usually harsher than the previous ones.
Moreover, if you comply with all probation terms as provided by the judge, the court can terminate your probation before its period elapses. Usually, for your probation term to be terminated, it requires you to show one or two years of compliance. Requesting for early probation termination is done alongside a petition to expunge your criminal conviction and a petition for lowering felony charges to a misdemeanor.
Note that sometimes, a conviction of child abuse as a felony is a strike as per the Three Strikes law of California. This happens if the child sustained severe physical injuries due to your act of abuse. A single strike on your record means you will serve doubled jail or prison time for subsequent felony convictions. Once you have convictions that qualify for three strikes on your record, you will have to serve a compulsory sentence of at least twenty-five years to life in state prison.
Common Defenses to Charges of Child Abuse
Defenses to child abuse usually include police misconduct or mistaken identity. However, the defenses may also involve your attorney arguing the following points:
You were falsely accused
Sadly, it is not uncommon for false allegations to be made against a party in cases of child abuse in California. The false allegations may be a result of a domestic or family conflict. A person can make false allegations against another due to jealousy, anger, revenge, the desire to have control of the minor, attempting to get the judge to rule in their favor in a child custody case, and wanting to punish the former or current romantic partner.
In most cases, accusations of child abuse are usually made against one’s new girlfriend/boyfriend or a step-parent. These accusations are by the party that is denied custody or by a minor who gets upset because his/her parent got a new love interest.
Something else, which is not abuse, caused the injuries
A child may be harmed by something else that a parent may not know. For instance, the injuries may be a result of bullying which the minor is afraid to tell. In other cases, the child may have gotten in a fight or an accident. When a person that means well sees injuries on a child, he/she can complain to law enforcement officers, which could lead to your arrest.
For instance, the Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting Act of California requires certain professionals to report alleged cases of child abuse. These professionals include teachers, nurses, doctors, school administrators, clergy, and social workers.
Failure for these professionals to report may have them charged with a misdemeanor, which may have them serve a jail sentence. Therefore, these people are under pressure and obligation to report any child abuse suspicions, even the minor ones.
To determine how the injuries occurred, an experienced attorney would have a forensic medical examiner or a doctor evaluate the injuries. The outcome may prove that you are being prosecuted unfairly based on misleading proof.
You were legally disciplining your child
Parents in Santa Ana have a legal right to use corporal punishment to correct the disobedience of their children. They are allowed to do this by using an object like a paddle or belt. However, the discipline has to be reasonable, and it should not result in any physical injury.
Unfortunately, disciplining a child can sometimes lead to child abuse charges, for instance, if someone saw a mark that appears to be an injury on a minor and overreacted. In other cases, a jealous spouse may use the disciplining as a justification to make false accusations.
Whichever the reason, provided the judge rules that the disciplining was reasonable given the situation, you should not be convicted.
The injury the child sustained was a result of an accident
For you to be guilty of child abuse, the prosecutor must prove that you acted intentionally. This means an experienced attorney can claim accident as a legal defense to your child abuse case. Thus, accidental injuries shouldn’t be the basis of a conviction. However, there may be an exception if you were unnecessarily aggressive or behaved recklessly.
Related Offenses to Child Abuse
Certain other offenses are normally charged instead of or alongside child abuse. The offenses often fall into the wide categories of assault & battery or domestic violence. They include:
- Child endangerment (PC 273a)
- Battery (PC 242)
- Child neglect (PC 270)
- Domestic violence
Finding a Child Abuse Attorney Near Me
The stakes in cases of child abuse can be exceedingly high for the parties involved. For instance, a conviction comes with long-lasting consequences to the offender, which include incarceration and damage to family connections, your livelihood, and personal relationships. If you or your loved one in Santa Ana has been charged with child abuse, contact our Santa Ana criminal attorney at 714-887-4810 as soon as possible to get appropriate legal help.