Child Abuse that does not lead to the death of a child is charged under Penal Code Sec. 273(a) and/or PC 273(d). Both are wobblers, meaning they can be charged as misdemeanors or felonies. Punishment is therefore up to six months in County Jail, or up to 6 years in State Prison.
These charges are pursued aggressively by special prosecutors assigned to prosecute these cases exclusively. If the child required any medical attention, an enhancement under Penal Code 12022.7 for causing serious bodily injury is often also charged, increasing a prison sentence by up to six years. This turns the crime into a “strike” under California’s three strike law.
By far the most serious charge, however, is for infliction of “cruel and extreme” pain or harm resulting in serious bodily injury. If this is done for one of four “purposes” such as revenge, persuasion, or a sadistic purpose, this is PC 206 Torture which carries a life sentence. Make no mistake, this crime may be charged even in child abuse cases where medical attention is not required for the resulting injuries. If a child has been intentionally hurt, the District Attorney will pursue the most serious charges the facts will support, having the lesser charges to “fall back on” if the jury does not find the most serious one.
Under PC 273(a) you can face child abuse charges for simply putting and child, or allowing a child in your care, to be put in a situation where the child might have been harmed – such as inside a car alone. The law is written such that if the child is placed in “conditions likely” to cause harm or death, that is enough. Assuming the car was in the sun, even if you left the car for 10 seconds, had you not returned after dropping a package inside the post office, the conditions would potentially be “likely” to cause serious harm. Of course, under this legal theory, if no physical harm has been caused to the child, the State will have to show criminal negligence, which is beyond simple poor judgment. But few defendants would be willing to see what the jury thinks about it, and so the prosecutors will attempt to force a conviction, probation, possibly some jail, a fine, and a year of child abuse classes in a negotiated plea agreement.
PC 273(d) is unnecessary or unjustifiable physical discipline of a child. The punishment inflicted must be unreasonable under this theory. The problem with this and all these crimes is that the prosecutor knows that a jury is going to be sympathetic to a child. All force can be made to look excessive at trial.
In the majority of these cases, the parent simply lost control or “snapped” momentarily. Any history of violence, however, may be introduced in the case to prove the crime itself, or make it punishable as part of a “pattern.” Such proof would be forbidden in other cases as unfairly prejudicial. But due to the relaxed rules of evidence in domestic violence and child abuses cases, the evidence comes in as further proof of the charges.
There are defenses, however, to these charges based on the facts of your individual situation, and on the evidence that the prosecution has to work with. An investigator and experts can be employed to great advantage, especially in a case that may not have a witness other than the child.
Los Angeles Criminal Defense lawyer Peter Sebastian has handled the most serious child abuse cases, including torture. As an evidence professor and former prosecutor, Mr. Sebastian can accurately assess the case against you, and will use this knowledge of proof to obtain the best possible outcome.
Links to Information for Anyone Charged with a Crime: