Reasonable Self-Defense is a Defense to a Claim of Abuse Under the Domestic Violence Prevention Act

The Court of Appeal found that Husband’s use of reasonable force to defend himself against Wife’s use of physical force to take his property did not amount to “abuse” under the Domestic Violence Prevention Act.

Valerie G. (“Wife”) sought a domestic violence restraining order (“DVRO”) against her husband, Louis G (“Husband”), alleging that he physically injured her during confrontations between them. Specifically, Wife asserted Husband intentionally or recklessly inflicted bodily injury on her. Husband argued that he did not commit abuse, but was merely defending himself against Wife’s aggression. The divorce court ultimately ruled against Wife, concluding that her testimony showed that the physical confrontations and resulting injuries were triggered by her own aggression in taking Husband’s electronic devices. The divorce court specifically rejected Wife’s argument that Husband used excessive force in responding to her actions, and thus denied her DVRO. On appeal, Wife’s divorce lawyer contended that the divorce court erred in concluding that, because her injuries were sustained during and as a result of physical confrontations she had instigated, they did not constitute “abuse” under the Domestic Violence Prevention Act (“DVPA”).

A divorce court may issue a DVRO to prevent a recurrence of domestic violence and to ensure a period of separation for the persons who are involved, provided that an applicant shows that there has been “a past act or acts of abuse.” Abuse includes “intentionally or recklessly causing or attempting to cause bodily injury.” The concept of self-defense is mentioned in Family Code section 6305, which limits the circumstances in which a divorce court can impose mutual restraining orders. In that regard, a mutual restraining order cannot be issued unless, among other things, the court “makes detailed findings of fact indicating that both parties acted as a primary aggressor, and that neither party acted primarily in self-defense.” The purpose of this requirement is to avoid restraining a party who is not culpable, and section 6305 reflects the Legislature's understanding that reasonable self-defense is a defense to a claim of abuse. Section 6305 is consistent with a long-standing principle of California law that a party who inflicts injury while acting reasonably in self-defense is not culpable.

On appeal, Wife’s divorce lawyer argued that as long as the evidence showed Husband either intentionally or recklessly caused the requisite bodily injury, it was an abuse of discretion to consider the circumstances that led to the infliction of that injury when evaluating her request for the DVRO. Wife’s divorce lawyer’s argument urged the Appellate Court to reject any concept of reasonable self-defense in interpreting and applying the DVPA. The Court of Appeal concluded that the language of the statute, coupled with fundamental principles of responsibility and culpability, precluded it from rejecting the concept of reasonable self-defense. The Court of Appeal reasoned that the divorce court found that in each instance where Husband applied force resulting in bodily injury to Wife, he acted in response to her attempts to take his property by physical force, and did not employ excessive force. The Court of Appeal noted that whether the degree of force was reasonable and justified under the circumstances was “one for determination by the trier of fact,” and the divorce court specifically rejected Wife's claim that Husband used excessive force. Accordingly, the Court of Appeal held that the divorce court properly recognized that a person who responds reasonably to an aggressor does not commit abuse within the meaning of section 6203, and thus the divorce court did not abuse its discretion in denying Wife’s divorce lawyer’s application for a DVRO. Thus, the denial of the DVRO by the divorce court was affirmed.

In re Marriage of G (2017) 11 Cal. App. 5th 773