Law Offices of M. Gabriela Guraiib

When Can an Argument Lead to Domestic Violence Charges?


When you live with other people, disagreements are unavoidable. They can even become loud, angry arguments without being a sign that something is wrong. However, there is a point where disputes cross the line and become domestic violence.

The problem is that it can be difficult to tell from the outside when a fight between spouses or family members is just an argument or something more. Worse, if the other person claims you were abusing them, you could face serious domestic violence charges in California. 

How Is Domestic Violence Defined in California?

Domestic violence (DV) describes unlawful abuse within certain “domestic” relationships. Two factors set DV apart from other types of abuse or violence: the relationship between the parties and the kind of harm committed.

First, the law restricts this to people who have certain close relationships. You may only be convicted of DV if you have one of the following relationships with the alleged victim:

  • Spouses or domestic partners
  • Ex-spouses or domestic partners
  • Currently or formerly dating
  • Closely related, such as siblings, parent and child, grandparent and grandchild, or in-laws
  • Living together as more than just passing roommates

Outside of these relationships, DV cannot occur. Instead, ongoing physical or verbal assaults may fall under elder/dependent adult abuse, civil harassment, workplace violence, or another type of crime.

The other element that must be present for a DV conviction is some form of abuse. However, abuse is much more than just physically attacking someone. State law defines it as any of the following:

  • Intentionally or recklessly hurting or attempting to hurt someone. This includes throwing things at someone, pushing or slapping them, tripping, pinching, and any other unwanted attempt to cause pain or physical injury.
  • Sexual assault, ranging from nonconsensual sexual contact to unwanted physical penetration. 
  • Causing someone to reasonably fear for their own or someone else’s physical safety, such as through threats or promises to harm them. 
  • Stalking and harassment, including tracking someone’s location without their consent, attempting to contact them to an unreasonable degree, or sending them threatening or unwanted sexual messages
  • Disturbing someone’s peace by causing them fear or distress, such as by appearing at their workplace or outside their home, destroying their personal property, or harassing their loved ones. 
  • Coercive control, defined as an ongoing “pattern of behavior that in purpose or effect unreasonably interferes with a person’s free will and personal liberty.”

The various behaviors listed above demonstrate why it is so easy to be unjustly charged with DV in California. 

The Line Between Normal Arguments vs. Domestic Violence

California legislators recognize that most arguments are simple disagreements between family members or partners. The state also acknowledges that anyone can make mistakes in the heat of the moment without being abuse. As such, most of the behavior listed above only becomes abusive in the eyes of the law when it is part of a pattern of behavior. For example, it’s not DV to accidentally go to your ex’s new workplace and argue with them before you leave.

Furthermore, even patterns described as coercive control are not typically criminal matters. Instead, they are grounds for civil lawsuits. If your ex-spouse alleges that you verbally abuse them, they could file for a restraining order, but they have no grounds to press criminal charges. 

However, there are situations where an argument crosses the line into domestic violence. Usually, this occurs when force enters the picture. There are two specific criminal charges for DV in California:

  • Domestic Battery: Using force or violence against a cohabitant, co-parent, or current or former romantic partner is domestic battery and a misdemeanor. You do not need to have caused a visible injury, pain, or harm to be convicted of domestic battery. Simply shoving, restraining, or throwing something at the other person may lead to penalties of up to a year in jail. 
  • Corporal Injury to Spouse or Cohabitant: Purposefully causing an intimate partner or cohabitant a physical, lasting injury may be a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on the severity of the injury. Misdemeanor convictions carry penalties of up to a year of jail time. In contrast, felony convictions can lead to up to five years in state prison, the loss of the right to own firearms, and the stripping of professional licenses. 

It is also worth noting that any behavior that would be illegal toward a stranger remains illegal in domestic situations and may even receive elevated penalties. This includes criminal stalking, child abuse, elder abuse, physical assault, sexual assault, and violating restraining orders. However, you are less likely to be charged with one of these crimes after a single argument. 

Potential Defenses Against DV Charges

If you have been charged with a domestic violence crime, your first action should be to seek out an experienced criminal defense lawyer. Your attorney will help you build a solid defense tailored to the circumstances of your case. Depending on your charges, they may recommend defenses such as:

  • Lack of relationship: If you do not have one of the relationships listed in the laws defining DV with the victim, you cannot have committed a domestic violence crime.
  • Self-defense: If the other person attacked you, you have the right to defend yourself with reasonable force. 
  • False allegations: If your partner exaggerates or lies about the events, you shouldn’t be convicted for what you didn’t do. 
  • Lack of proof: All criminal convictions must be supported beyond a reasonable doubt. If there is insufficient evidence to meet this standard, you should not be convicted. 

Don’t wait to get help. Domestic violence convictions can ruin your reputation and your life. If you’ve been charged, schedule your consultation with the Redwood City criminal defense lawyers at the Law Offices of M. Gabriela Guraiib today. We are dedicated to defending our clients and their rights to the full extent of the law. We’re prepared to help you fight to get charges reduced, dropped, or dismissed.