What SB 1141 Does? What Is Coercive Control?
When we think of domestic violence, we often think of physical abuse. However, domestic abuse isn’t always physical. Coercive control is a form of domestic violence in which an abuser uses a pattern of abusive behavior to dominate their partner and limit their partner’s freedom. Although this can involve physical violence, it is often more subtle and can include other control tactics such as intimidation, isolation, deprivation, or monitoring. This controlling behavior is designed to make the victim dependent on their abuser.
- Isolating the victim from friends, relatives, or other sources of support
- Controlling the victim’s finances, communications, and whereabouts
- Depriving the victim of basic necessities, such as food or sleep
- Humiliating, degrading, or otherwise verbally abusing the victim
- Stalking the victim
- Gaslighting the victim
Senate Bill 1141
In 2020, California Governor Gavin Newson signed a bill that revised the state’s Family Code, establishing that coercive control constitutes abuse under the definition in the state’s Domestic Violence Prevention Act. Specifically, SB 1141 states that “disturbing the peace of the other party” is conduct that destroys the mental or emotional calm of the other party, and that disturbing the peace of the other party includes coercive control. The bill further defines coercive control as a pattern of behavior that unreasonably interferes with a person’s free will and personal liberty and includes, among other things, unreasonably isolating a victim from friends, relatives, or other sources of support.
In addition to California, Hawaii and Connecticut also have similar laws criminalizing coercive control. While these laws make it easier for victims to get justice from their abusers, it may also blur the lines between what constitutes criminal domestic violence and what doesn’t. If you have any questions regarding SB 1141 or if you have been falsely accused of coercive control, contact Wallin & Klarich to see how we can help.
What SB 1141 Does
SB 1141 is designed to expand California’s Family Code. It would specifically name “coercive control” as one of the types of abuse that California recognizes as reason to give someone a domestic violence restraining order against another person. The bill defines coercive control as “a pattern of behavior that unreasonably interferes with a person’s free will and personal liberty and includes, among other things, unreasonably isolating a victim from friends, relatives, or other sources of support.”
The current types of abuse acknowledged by California include:
- Causing or attempting to cause someone injury
- Sexual assault
- Making people fear for their safety
- Disturbing the peace of the other party
While the Family Code does specify that “abuse is not limited to the actual infliction of physical injury or assault,” coercion or controlling behavior are not currently mentioned.
By expanding the definition of abuse under California law, SB 1141 is intended to give victims of abuse another tool to escape their abusers. The problem is that SB 1141 contains something that the current Family Code does not: conditions. Current victims of abuse only need to prove a single act of abuse in order to receive a restraining order. If SB 1141 is signed into law, future victims will need to prove a pattern of abuse. They will also need to prove the abuser’s intent to cause harm and the unreasonable nature of the actions the abuser took.
This is a much higher standard than current Family Code standards of abuse. While the bill is well-intended, it poses some risks for people who are trying to exit dangerous relationships.
Penalties for Coercive Control
In the state of California, if a court finds that you have committed coercive control, it may allow the victim to file a restraining order against you in family court. Violating the restraining order can carry criminal penalties. Generally, this is a misdemeanor charge punishable by up to $1,000 in fines and up to one year in county jail. Additionally, anyone with a restraining order cannot purchase or own any firearms as long as the order is in effect.
A finding of coercive control could also have a bearing on child custody. If the victim is seeking child custody, for example, the court can use coercive control as evidence of domestic violence and thus make a finding about the best interest of the child. This is because courts recognize that domestic violence, in all its forms, is detrimental to children.
If the court convicts you of additional domestic violence charges in conjunction with coercive control, you may be facing harsher penalties. The most common criminal charges include domestic battery (Penal Code Section 243e) and inflicting corporal injury on an intimate partner (PC Section 273.5). For the former crime, which makes it a misdemeanor to inflict force or violence on an intimate partner, you could face up to $2,000 in fines and up to one year in county jail. For the latter crime, which can be prosecuted as either a misdemeanor or a felony, you may have more severe consequences depending on the circumstances of your case. For felony convictions, this crime is punishable by up to $6,000 in fines and up to four years in state prison, with possible sentence enhancements if great bodily injury was inflicted.
The Potential Risks of SB 1141
According to some victim advocates, SB 1141 will actually make leaving unsafe relationships harder, not easier. Because of the additional burden of proof placed on the abused party, receiving a domestic violence restraining order will be more difficult. These advocates argue that “coercive control” already falls under the Family Code’s description of “disturbing the peace.”
California case law defines disturbing the peace in regards to family law as “conduct that destroys the mental or emotional calm of the other party.” It may be argued that coercive control as defined in SB 1141 meets this definition. Unreasonably limiting someone’s social life and freedoms could be said to destroy someone’s mental state or emotional calm. This might make SB 1141 not just redundant, but more limiting for victims than California’s current law.
The end result is that if SB 1141 is signed into law, it might become more difficult to leave a dangerous relationship without legal representation. Depending on how the courts interpret the law, it could curtail the current rights of victims of abuse instead of expanding them. That might lead to people remaining in dangerous relationships for longer, putting them at risk of harm.