Review of PC 273d Child Abuse Laws and Best Defenses
California Penal Code 273d PC defines the crime of child abuse as inflicting cruel punishment or a physical injury on a minor who is under the age of 18 years old.
This statute is also commonly known as “corporal injury on a child,” and frequently falls under the umbrella of domestic violence.
PC 273d is a “wobbler” that can be filed as either a misdemeanor or felony offense at the discretion of the prosecutor based on different factors, such as the level of injuries to the child.
Readers should note that the state of California has mandatory reporting laws that require some professions, most notably school teachers, to make a report if they observe evidence of what they believe is abuse or neglect.
Obviously, child abuse and neglect is against the law in every state, but in California, the laws are particularly strict to ensure children are protected.
That being said, it can be difficult for some parents to discern the line between reasonable discipline and child abuse, and even more challenging to unravel these nuances in a courtroom.
If you find yourself arrested and charged with child abuse, the following information from our Los Angeles criminal defense lawyers should help you.
It can assist you in understanding what you're charged with, what possible penalties you could face, and the best common defenses against this charge.
What is the Definition Child Abuse in California?
Under California Penal Code 273d PC, child abuse is defined as:
- “Anyone who willfully inflicts on a child any cruel or inhuman corporal [i.e., physical] punishment or an injury that results in traumatic condition."
A “traumatic condition” is described as a wound or other bodily injury. It could be a minor injury or serious, caused by the direct application of physical force.
The term “willfully” in the definition is a frequent target for debate in child abuse allegations. It clearly means the act was on purpose and not an accident.
This definition is fairly broad and can apply to numerous situations including, but not limited to:
- Hitting or slapping a child in a way that leaves a mark;
- Shaking a baby so forcefully as to cause brain damage or other injuries;
- Punching, pushing or choking a child;
- Deliberately inflicting cigarette burns on a child;
- Throwing items at a child, or throwing the child.
As noted, by the definition contained in 273d PC, to obtain a conviction for child abuse charges, the prosecution must demonstrate that you willfully inflicted cruel and inhuman punishment on the child.
This means it was outside of the bounds of "reasonable discipline," and that the child was injured or traumatized as a result.
Prior Child Abuse Offenses Taken into Account
In California, being charged with child abuse puts you at a particular disadvantage because it is one of the few crimes for which prior offenses abuse or domestic violence may be introduced as evidence against you—even if you were not convicted of them.
While priors aren't usually admissible for other crimes, California allows them in child abuse cases in order to establish a pattern of violence.
This is the exception to the rule of evidence, which is that prior convictions can't be introduced to convict a defendant as it would be considered too “prejudicial.”
Before a prosecutor can present evidence of prior alleged acts of child abuse, a judge has to hold a hearing in order to decide whether its value outweighs the chances of prejudice.
At the hearing, the judge will consider several different factor, such as:
- if evidence will unduly prejudge the jury,
- corroborating evidence for the earlier accusations,
- the time elapsed between the prior acts and the current charges, which normally must have occurred within past 10 years.
Further, there are some situations where the prosecutor might be allowed to introduce evidence of prior bad acts of domestic violence in order to help them prove their case of abusing a minor.
That's why it's essential to have experienced defense counsel in your corner when fighting charges of child abuse.
Is Spanking Considered Child Abuse?
Technically, California law does not consider spanking to be child abuse as long as it falls under the parameters of "reasonable discipline" and is not excessive.
However, the question of what constitutes "reasonable discipline" is a gray area, and judges and juries have a lot of latitude to make determinations as to when and if an incident of spanking crosses the line into child abuse.
Exceptions to what would be considered “reasonable” include spanking a child with a paddle or belt, but again, this is a controversial area of the law.
PC 273d Child Abuse Penalties
As noted, child abuse is a "wobbler" offense, meaning it can be charged either as a misdemeanor or a felony.
For either one, judges will often take the circumstances into account and sentence the defendant to probation rather than jail.
The terms of probation, normally lasting three years, may include additional requirements like mandatory counseling and a protective order restricting contact with the child, or even a full stay-away order.
Further, conditions of probation can include regular visits to a probation officer. If defendant was under the influenced of drugs or alcohol when the offense occurred, then they will likely be ordered to take random drug tests.
If a defendant fails to comply with any terms of their probation, then the judge will likely revoke their probation, issue a bench warrant, and send them to jail.
The alternative to jail for a probation violation is to order new stricter terms. If probation is not recommended, the penalties for child abuse are listed below.
For misdemeanor child abuse, the penalties include the following:
- up to 1 year in jail, and
- up to $6000 in fines.
For felony child abuse, the following punishments will apply:
- up to 6 years in prison, and
- up to $6000 in fines.
If a defendant has a prior child abuse conviction, then the jail sentence could be increased by four years, unless the conviction was over 10 year ago.
If convicted of a Penal Code 273d felony child abuse case, it could count as a “strike” under California's three strikes law if the minor sustained a great bodily injury (GBI) connected to the abuse incident.
Related California Offenses
Depending on the situation, those accused of PC 273d child abuse may also find themselves charged with one or more of the following related offenses.
Penal Code 270 PC - child neglect
Child neglect involves wanton failure to provide needed food, clothing, shelter, or medical care for a minor in your charge. Penalties include up to a year in jail and a fine up to $2,000, but could also be charged as a felony.
Penal Code 273a - child endangerment
Child endangerment involves willingly subjecting a child to unnecessary danger, suffering, or pain, regardless of whether physical injury actually occurred.
It's often charged alongside child abuse because it creates a traumatic environment in which the alleged abuse occurred.
Domestic violence encompasses a series of laws involving inflicting harm, criminal threats, or trauma on a spouse, family member, or intimate partner.
Child abuse often occurs in the context of domestic violence, so it's not uncommon for these additional charges to accompany child abuse.
Best Defenses for PC 273d Child Abuse Charges
Given the sensitive nature of Penal Code 273d child abuse case and the sometimes-fine line between reasonable discipline or abuse, it's not unusual for defendants to be falsely charged with child abuse.
A good criminal defense attorney can evaluate the circumstances of the case and may use one or more of the following defenses:
- The injury was accidental. Prosecutors must prove intention to obtain a child abuse conviction. If you didn't intend to hit the child, your attorney might contend the resulting injury was an accident.
- The injury wasn't caused by abuse. Children sustain injuries through various causes, sometimes unknown even to the parents until the injury manifests.
- You were falsely accused. Angry spouses or the child's other parent may have leveled a false accusation against you for reasons of revenge, jealously, or vindictiveness. Perhaps a mandated reporter on a child abuse overreacted.
- You were exercising reasonable discipline. This defense can be especially productive if there are no visible marks or signs of injury on the child.
As noted above, the prosecutor must prove a defendant acted “willfully,” meaning accidental injuries to a child should not result in a conviction.
Another common argument to challenge the child abuse charges is the often controversial issue of child discipline.
Clearly, all parents have a right to discipline their children with some corporal physical punishment, even with a belt.
However, common sense is a good rule here and the discipline has to be “reasonable” and should not cause any serious bodily injury.
If a jury looks at the evidence and decides the punishment was reasonable under the circumstances, then they will likely return a not guilty verdict.
Put simply, some serious and overly aggressive spanking could lead to child abuse charges in California.
Eisner Gorin LLP is based in Los Angeles County and serves clients throughout Southern California from our two office locations in Century City (West LA), and Van Nuys which is in the San Fernando Valley.
Call or law firm at (877) 781-1570 for a confidential initial consultation, or you can complete and send us the contact form.