This article originally appeared in the LACBA Family Law Newsletter, Spring 2021. 

In our evolving Domestic Violence statutory scheme, recently enacted SB 1141 explicates and expands the definition of “disturbing the peace” in Family Code §6320 to include the concept of “coercive control” as a form of domestic violence subject to restraint.

§6320 was amended, effective January 1, 2021, adding new subsections (c) and (d) stating:

(c) As used in this subdivision (a), “disturbing the peace of the other party” refers to conduct that, based on the totality of the circumstances, destroys the mental or emotional calm of the other party. This conduct may be committed directly or indirectly, including through the use of a third party, and by any method or through any means including, but not limited to, telephone, online accounts, text messages, internet-connected devices, or other electronic technologies. This conduct includes, but is not limited to, coercive control, which is a pattern of behavior that in purpose or effect unreasonably interferes with a person’s free will and personal liberty. Examples of coercive control include, but are not limited to, unreasonably engaging in any of the following:

(1) Isolating the other party from friends, relatives, or other sources of support.

(2) Depriving the other party of basic necessities.

(3) Controlling, regulating, or monitoring the other party’s movements, communications, daily behavior, finances, economic resources, or access to services.

(4) Compelling the other party by force, threat of force, or intimidation, including threats based on actual or suspected immigration status, to engage in conduct from which the other party has a right to abstain or to abstain from conduct in which the other party has a right to engage.

(d) This section does not limit any remedies available under this act or any other provision of law. 1

Case law had interpreted the meaning and scope of “disturbing the peace”1. The amended statutory definition includes the concept from case law that disturbing the peace is: “conduct that, based on the totality of the circumstances, destroys the mental or emotional calm of the other party.”

But the new statute goes even further, augmenting the definition of “disturbing the peace” to include “coercive control” – a pattern of behavior that “in purpose or effect unreasonably interferes with a person’s free will and personal liberty”.

SB 1141 is the first legislative change to the DV scheme acknowledging that patterns of behavior, including expressive behavior, rather than isolated acts, constitute abuse. The definition in §6320 clarifies that these patterns may inflict severe emotional and psychological harm, even in the absence of physical violence or threats of physical violence.

California’s domestic violence law now reflects recognized concepts of intimate partner violence verified by research in the field. The Senate Judiciary Committee’s legislative analysis of the bill states:

According to Katie Ray-Jones, the National Domestic Violence Hotline’s Chief Executive, “[d]omestic violence is rooted in power and control.”

When abusers lose control of their intimate partners, they resort to a variety of tactics to subjugate them.

The Center for Disease Control states that intimate partner violence may consist of physical violence, sexual violence, and psychological aggression, which includes expressive aggression (insulting, name calling) and coercive control (behaviors that involve monitoring, controlling, or threatening the victim).

A fact sheet by the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence states that psychological abuse increases the trauma of physical and sexual abuse, and cites to studies that have demonstrated that “psychological abuse independently causes long-term damage to a victim’s mental health, which may include “depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, suicidal ideation, low-self-esteem, and difficulty trusting others.”

Additionally, “[s]ubtle psychological abuse is more harmful than either overt psychological abuse or direct aggression.”

1 See, IRMO Nadkarni (2009) 173 Cal. App. 4th 483 (accessing, using and publicly disclosing former wife’s confidential email); Burquet v. Brumbaugh (2014) 223 Cal.App.4th 1140 (continuing to contact a person electronically and in person despite their request to stop); In re Marriage of Evilsizor & Sweeney (2015) 237 Cal.App.4th 1416 (downloading and disseminating text messages;) Altafulla v. Ervin (2015) 238 Cal App. 4th 483 (statements disseminated to harass a victim, even if true, that cause the victim severe emotional distress.) These were all recognized as abuse under the DVPA statutory scheme.

Coercive control is a pervasive form of abuse. Over 40 percent of people experience at least one form of coercive control in their lifetime. The bill’s sponsor, the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office, states that coercive control “is a form of domestic violence where a partner in an intimate relationship engages in conduct that significantly curtails a victim’s liberty rights, such as the freedom of association, movement, and access to service.” The term “coercive control” was coined by Dr. Evan Stark, a leading expert on domestic violence, who defines it as “an ongoing strategy of isolation of the victim from friends, family and children; control of access to resources such as transportation, money and food; and control of access to employment and education.” The effect of coercive control is to “strip away a sense of self, entrapping the victim in a world of confusion, contradiction, and fear.” It may be inflicted concurrently with physical violence, but often is not.

SB 1141’s changes to Family Code §6320, introducing and codifying the concept of coercive control, will likely be followed with additional statutory amendments. Pending in this current legislative session is SB 374, a bill which would add the concept of “reproductive coercion’ to the statute. As currently proposed, new Family Code §6320(c)(5) would add the following language to the definition of coercive control:

“(5) Engaging in reproductive coercion, which consists of control over the reproductive autonomy of another through force, threat of force, or intimidation, and may include, but is not limited to, excessively pressuring the other party to become pregnant, deliberately interfering with contraception use or access to reproductive health information, or using coercive tactics to control, or attempt to control, pregnancy outcomes.”

Protecting victims of domestic violence is a significant priority for the California Legislature. Besides SB 374, the majority of pending bills amending the Family Code pertain to domestic violence.2

Domestic Violence is an expanding area of family law, with the definition of “abuse” changing rapidly to reflect the diverse ways that one individual may become the victim of another. To represent our clients diligently and well, family law practitioners should stay current and understand the statutory and case law developments in this challenging area of our practice. When a client seeks out our services, we should conduct an adequate “d.v.” assessment, alert to all aspects of a relationship, including the sometimes subtle behavioral patterns that may constitute abuse.

2 See, AB277 (notice of address confidentiality for victims); AB611 (victim address confidentiality for homeowner’s association records); AB 887 (expansion of electronic filing hours for RO applications); SB24 (confidentiality of minor child records from perpetrators of abuse); SB 320 (firearm relinquishment strengthened); SB538 (expanding electronic filing of RO applications).

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