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Who is the Aggressor in Domestic Violence Cases?

Posted by Ronald D. Hedding | Jun 19, 2024

When police respond to domestic violence assault incidents in Los Angeles County, one of their main responsibilities is to identify the primary aggressor. This ensures that the right individual is held accountable and victims receive protection.

Police officers must make a careful balance between justice and immediate safety needs as they attempt to discern the emotionally intense dynamics of a domestic assault call.

Often, it is pretty easy for police to differentiate the perpetrator from the victim, but what if both people show signs of aggression or injury? In these cases, police officers must determine who the "primary aggressor" is based on available evidence.

California Penal Code 13700 PC defines domestic violence as the abuse of a current or former spouse, cohabitant, dating partner, fiancé, fiancée, or co-parent.

Simply put, domestic violence assault is generally described as intentionally or recklessly causing harm or the fear of harm in a domestic setting. This law applies not only to current or former spouses but also to people who are or were dating, family members, and those living together like roommates.

The types of behavior considered domestic assault are not limited to just physical violence but also threats, intimidation, and any action that can cause physical harm or fear of it.

Notably, domestic assault differs from other types of assault. While both assault and domestic assault involve harm or the threat of harm, domestic assault occurs within a domestic relationship, which gives it a unique legal context.

Additionally, domestic assault cases often have other concerns, such as the victim's ongoing safety and family relationships, which are not typically a factor in other assault cases.

In terms of legal consequences, most domestic violence assaults are wobblers that can be charged as misdemeanors or more serious felonies. This depends on how serious the assault was and if the alleged abuser has a history of similar offenses. Judges often order protective orders and require offenders to go through a batterer intervention program.

What is the Concept Of The Primary Aggressor?

In domestic assault cases, the primary aggressor is generally described as the person who poses the most serious ongoing threat and is often identified as the person who is more likely to cause injury. The primary aggressor in a domestic violence case is usually the one who is the most significant instigator.

Primary Aggressor in Domestic Violence Cases
The aggressor in a domestic violence case is the person that was the most significant instigator.

This determination is not just about who initiated initial physical contact or who appears more aggressive at the moment of police intervention.

Instead, it involves a thorough assessment of the entire situation, considering factors such as the history of violence between the couple, the relative physicality, and any evidence of coercion or control.

Identifying the primary aggressor is a main aspect of law enforcement's response to domestic violence calls. This determination is essential to prevent the potential arrest and prosecution of a victim who might have acted in self-defense.

It also helps in providing appropriate support and protection to real victims. Law enforcement officers in Los Angeles are trained to use specific criteria and investigative techniques to assess these domestic violence situations accurately.

This includes evaluating the severity of injuries, the likelihood of future harm to the victim, and the context of the altercation, among other factors.

Primary Aggressor - Quick Facts

  • Domestic Violence (DV) is a broad term used to classify crimes that can be charged and punished in many different ways.
  • In California, strict protocols are in place for police to protect victims from further violence even before formal charges are filed.
  • Law enforcement officers are required to arrest a domestic violence call if there are indications that violence did occur.
  • If both people show signs of injury, police must determine who the "primary aggressor" is based on the available evidence at the scene.
  • Serious domestic violence incidents are often charged as felonies.

How is the Primary Aggressor Defined?

The primary aggressor in a domestic violence case is the person deemed to have been the most significant instigator or perpetrator of violence during the incident.

Under California law, when law enforcement officers respond to a domestic violence call and find that both people have injuries, they must identify and arrest the primary aggressor.

This determination is more than simply identifying who started the altercation. Instead, it involves a comprehensive assessment intended to determine who is a greater threat based on the following factors:

  • Domestic violence history. Prior violence cases are considered, particularly those documented by police or court actions.
  • Self-defense. Determining whether one person acted in self-defense is important, mainly when retaliatory violence occurs.
  • Level of injuries. The extent and seriousness of the physical injuries often indicate who was more aggressive.
  • Chances of future harm. Police officers assess which person is more likely to initiate further violence.
  • Statements from witnesses. Getting information from other people can help reveal a clearer picture of the dynamic between the parties.

What Are the Challenges in Identifying the Primary Aggressor?

While arresting the primary aggressor is supposed to prevent further violence and ensure the safety of the victim, the system is not perfect.

Identifying the primary aggressor is a complex task that requires quick judgment under stressful circumstances. Mistakes are common, and many factors contribute to the potential misidentification of the primary aggressor, such as the following:

  • Stereotypes. Preconceived notions about male gender or physical appearance often influence an officer's judgment about the aggressor.
  • Dual arrests. Sometimes, police find it difficult to determine the primary aggressor, so both parties are arrested.
  • Misreading the injuries. Sometimes, injuries might not accurately portray what happened during the confrontation. A more severely injured person might actually be the primary aggressor if they started the violence and the other party responded in self-defense.

What Are the Most Common Domestic Violence Charges?

The most common domestic violence charge is California Penal Code 273.5 PC corporal injury on a spouse. This wobbler crime involves inflicting injury on a spouse, cohabitant, fellow parent, or person the accused has dated.

Frequently, police will arrest an alleged abuser for felony PC 273.5, and the district attorney will reduce it to a misdemeanor domestic battery if the injuries do not rise to felony conduct.

Another common charge is Penal Code 243(e)(1) PC domestic battery. This misdemeanor involves committing a battery on a spouse, cohabitant, fellow parent, or person the accused dated. Penal Code 273.6 PC defines the common offense of violations of restraining orders.

One of the more serious domestic violence charges is Penal Code 245 PC assault with a deadly weapon, which is not limited to just domestic violence cases. This crime is considered a serious and violent felony and is a strike under California's Three Strikes law.

What is the Role of a Domestic Violence Defense Lawyer?

Suppose the system in place incorrectly identifies the primary aggressor. In that case, their life might be unfairly disrupted. It starts with the wrongful arrest, and a restraining order is issued against them. Often, they are prohibiting them from returning home and possibly separating them from their children. 

This is why an experienced Los Angeles domestic violence defense attorney is needed, who can help you in many ways, including the following:

  • Negotiating with the district attorney. Sometimes, the best action might involve negotiating with prosecutors to reduce charges or drop the case. A lawyer with a clear understanding of California's domestic violence laws can use their legal knowledge to advocate effectively on their client's behalf.
  • Challenging the charges. Your lawyer can examine the circumstances surrounding the arrest, looking for discrepancies, biases, or procedural errors that might have led to the wrongful identification as the primary aggressor. Common sources for review include police reports, witness statements, and any available physical evidence.
  • Contest the protective order. A criminal defense lawyer might be able to challenge the issuance of a protective order, which can have significant implications for the defendant. They might be able to provide evidence and arguments to show that the accused did not pose a threat to the alleged victim, which allows them to continue living at home and keeping custody of their children.
  • Challenge the evidence. A lawyer can examine the evidence police officers use to determine the primary aggressor closely, such as questioning the credibility of witness statements and interpreting physical evidence.
  • Present alternative evidence. A lawyer can also collect evidence to present a different narrative, challenging the prosecutor's story. They might present additional evidence the police may have overlooked, such as text messages, emails, or medical records.

What About a First-Offense Domestic Violence Case?

A domestic violence case is considered a first offense if a person arrested has never been convicted of a domestic violence-related charge, including domestic battery, spousal abuse, assault, or battery.

First-offense domestic violence convictions often carry a broad range of specific consequences. An experienced domestic violence defense lawyer can influence the punishment imposed by the judge. First-offense domestic violence punishments are often more severe if one of the people in the incident requires medical treatment or has serious injuries.

The consequences will be more severe if someone suffers a great bodily injury. Some courts will impose more severe penalties if multiple incidents occur.

The primary factors in domestic violence cases include the circumstances of the case, the nature of the relationship, the location of the arrest, and the accused's criminal history. Contact us for more information. The Hedding Law Firm is based in Los Angeles, CA.

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About the Author

Ronald D. Hedding

What Makes Ronald Hedding Uniquely Qualified To Represent You? I've been practicing criminal defense for almost 30 years and have handled thousands of cases, including all types of state and federal sex crime cases. All consultations are discreet and confidential.