Self-defense can be a tricky thing. On one hand are those instances where an attempted burglary or assault – or sometimes even an attempted murder – is defeated by successful self-defense efforts. On the other hand are cases in which a burglar or other criminal wins a personal injury action for injuries and damages suffered when the self-defense force has been excessive. Domestic violence situations are governed by similar principals, in the sense that (a) it matters who the aggressor is, and (b) it matters whether the self-defense force used was reasonable under the circumstances.
This was demonstrated recently in a published decision of the Fourth District Court of Appeal (In re the Marriage of Valerie and Louis G., Cal.App., May 16, 2017, Superior Court No. D558422, Appellate Court No. D070495). In that case, Wife filed her petition for dissolution, requesting child support and custody of the parties’ minor child, together with an application for a domestic violence restraining order (“DVRO”) against Husband. Husband and Wife had a history of frequent arguments during the marriage, but there was no evidence that Husband had instigated any physical confrontations during these arguments.
Wife presented photographs allegedly depicting injuries she claimed to have sustained in multiple physical confrontations. However, Husband was able to persuade the trial court that he had not initiated any of the alleged physical confrontations, and that he had used reasonable self-defense efforts in response to physical aggression initiated by Wife.
In affirming the trial court’s order, the Court of Appeal rejected Wife’s argument that principles of reasonable self-defense may not be used in interpreting and applying the Domestic Violence Prevention Act (“the Act,” found in California Family Code, Sections § 6200 et seq.). On the contrary, the Court found that certain provisions of the Act are “consistent with a long-standing principle of California law that a party who inflicts injury while acting reasonably in self-defense is not culpable. (see, Calvillo-Silva v. Home Grocery (1998) 19 Cal.4th 714. (citation omitted.) The Court then cited the following authorities in support of that principle:
• Civil Code section § 50, which permits the use of “[a]ny necessary force … to protect from wrongful injury the person or property of oneself, or of a wife, husband, child, parent, or other relative, or member of one’s family, or of a ward, servant, master or guest.”
• People v. Myers (1998) 61 Cal.App.4th 328, which held that reasonable force may be used to resist a battery.
• Frickstad v. Medcraft (1929) 100 Cal.App.188 [reasonable force permissible to protect property from damage].
• Riffel v. Letts (1916) 31 Cal.App. 426 [reasonable force permissible to retake property from someone who has obtained it by force].
• A mutual restraining order case, J.J. v. M.F. (2014) 223 Cal.App.4th 968, which also cited Civil Code, section § 50, and the foregoing general principals in its application of Family Code, section § 6305.
In both J.J. v. M.F. and Marriage of Valerie and Louis G., critical weight was given to the identity of the primary aggressor, and to the reasonableness of the self-defense force that the other party employed. Reading between the lines, it also appears that the party claiming self-defense may have more credibility, and therefore may receive a more sympathetic hearing from the trial court, if there is no evidence of that party having been the instigator of any past confrontations. It must always be remembered that our family law courts are courts of equity, and the cleanliness of the parties’ hands may very well determine the outcome of DVRO proceedings such as this case presented.