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California Penal Code 273(d) – Child Abuse

273d. (a) Any person who willfully inflicts upon a child any cruel or inhuman corporal punishment or an injury resulting in a traumatic condition is guilty of a felony and shall be punished by imprisonment pursuant to subdivision (h) of Section 1170 for two, four, or six years, or in a county jail for not more than one year, by a fine of up to six thousand dollars ($6,000), or by both that imprisonment and fine.

This statute covers intentional acts of bodily harm on a child, otherwise known as physical child abuse. This crime may be charged as a felony or misdemeanor in California.

Potential Sentence: Per the above statute, a defendant found guilty can be sentenced to two, four, or six years in state prison, or if sentenced to county jail for no more than one year, and/or a maximum fine of six thousand dollars. If the defendant has prior convictions under this section, an enhancement can be added that increases the sentence by another four years imprisonment. In some cases, the court may allow probation.

To obtain a guilty verdict for a charge of Penal Code section 273d(a), the prosecutor must show:

(1) A willful act of physical punishment by the defendant which inflicts cruel or inhumane physical punishment on a child, AND

(2) The defendant's act of punishment resulted in a traumatic physical condition, AND

(3) The defendant was not carrying out a reasonable act of discipline.

Explanation of the Law

(1) First Element: “willfully” means something done on purpose. The defendant does not have to intend to break the law for his/her actions to be considered “willful.” Pen. Code, § 7, subd. 1; see People v. Lara (1996) 44 Cal.App.4th 102.

a. The term “child” covers any person under the age of eighteen. A person will be considered as eighteen years old during the first minute of his or her birthday. People v. Thomas (1976) 65 Cal.App.3d 854.

(2) Second Element: the term “traumatic physical condition” means some type of bodily injury, regardless of the severity, which directly resulted from the defendant's act of physical force.

a. Causation (of the traumatic physical condition) is established if the injury was the natural and probable consequence of the act, the act was the direct and substantial factor in the causing the result, and the injury would not have occurred absent the act by the defendant.

b. The definition of “natural and probable consequence” is a consequence which a person of reasonable mind would think is likely to happen when committing such an act.

c. “Substantial factor” means something more than a remote event. The substantial factor also does not need to be the only factor involved.

(1) Third Element: it is not against the law to spank a child as an act of discipline. Spanking can be done legally by hand or other appropriate object. However, the spanking must not be excessive and must be necessary taking into account the circumstances. 90 Ops.Cal.Atty.Gen 203 (1997).

a. General Intent:  Child Abuse is a general intent crime. This means that the defendant needs only to do the illegal act, i.e. violently hit a child. It is not required that the defendant form an intent to create any particular result (i.e. injury) when doing the act.

Lesser Included Offenses:

(1) Simple Assault under California Penal Code 240.

(2) Simple Battery under California Penal Code 242.

(3) Attempted Infliction of Corporal Punishment under Penal Code sections 664 and 273d.


Other source of injury: California Penal Code 273(d) covers acts in which the defendant is the source of the injury. This may occur in cases of accident. If the child was injured through something other than the act of the defendant, then the prosecution will not be able to prevail on  273(d) charge.

Reasonable Disciplinary Action: Parents  have the right to discipline their own children if the amount of force used is appropriate and not abusive, and the discipline is justified under the circumstances.


People v. Thomas (1976) 65 Cal.App.3d 854

Attorney General Opinion on Spanking

Child Endangerment

San Diego Criminal Defense Attorney

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