If you asked most people to define domestic violence, they would likely describe a physical attack of some sort on a spouse or romantic partner. In California, however, the laws covering domestic violence go much further than that and include threats and intimidation, as well as destruction of property. But where is the line between simple angry rhetoric in the heat of an argument and an actual violation of the law?
What does the penal code say?
In certain cases, a court will easily differentiate between words you say in anger but do not really mean and an immediate threat. In other cases, they may take your words much more seriously than you intended.
California penal code Section 422 makes it a violation to “willfully threaten to commit a crime” involving death or bodily injury to the other person in an “unequivocal, unconditional, immediate, and specific” manner, which causes the other person “reasonably to be in sustained fear for his or her own safety” or the safety of a family member. The statement can be communicated verbally or in writing, including by electronic communication, such as a text.
How immediate is the threat?
One of the keys to this statute is how immediate the danger appears to the target of the threat. Giving specific details along with clear intention may make the danger seem more real. For example, if you threaten to shoot someone after work and you own a gun, that person may be more inclined to reasonably believe you and fear for their life.
On the other hand, if you say “If you hang up on me again, I’ll kill you” during an argument, your statement contains no specific intention to actually hurt the person. Rather, that is a conditional threat that people often use but do not mean. A prosecutor may attempt to pursue charges for such a threat if they are feeling particularly zealous, however, so you should still be careful with any type of threat.
Watch what you say and how you say it
The takeaway from Section 422 is that you should be careful with your words. They can get you in trouble under domestic violence laws. Angry words are normal in a heated argument, but make sure no one would interpret your words as a threat of violence.