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How Can Nonphysical Domestic Abuse Be Proven in Court?


Domestic violence laws define “abuse” as physically hurting someone recklessly or intentionally. It also defines abuse as behaviors such as stalking, disturbing someone’s peace, or threatening harm. Domestic violence does not have to be the physical striking of someone. It can be verbal, psychological, or emotional. While abuse takes many shapes and forms, it can be difficult for victims of nonphysical domestic violence to prove their cases in court.

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Winning a domestic violence case in California comes down to the victim’s burden of proof. The plaintiff must prove that he or she was a victim of nonphysical domestic abuse. While proof in physical violence cases—personal injuries or damaged property—can be easy to come by, it is not always trustworthy. Physical signs of abuse are open to interpretation by the courts. Physical proof is not the only way to win a domestic abuse case.

Witness Testimonies

Testimonies from witnesses of the abuse are strong forms of proof for a nonphysical domestic abuse case. If someone actually heard or saw the incident, such as a spouse yelling at or verbally berating someone, he or she can testify accordingly. While those who saw the incident with their own eyes are preferable, in some cases, the courts allow testimony from people who found out about the incident from someone else. There are three types of witnesses:

  1. Bystanders. These witnesses were not actually involved in the incident, but they saw or heard it with their own eyes and ears. At the time of the incident, police will typically gather the information of any witnesses. The prosecution can use this information to interview witnesses and call them to testify on the victim’s behalf. The defense can also use witnesses to discredit a victim’s claims, depending on the situation.
  2. Alleged victim. The victim(s) of a nonphysical domestic abuse case are technically witnesses to the incident. The subpoena rule, a court order to provide testimony at a court proceeding, does not hold true for alleged victims of domestic abuse in California. State law gives the alleged victim immunity from confinement, meaning he or she does not have to testify. However, the victim can testify if he or she wishes.
  3. Officers at the scene. The police officers who responded to the call in a domestic abuse case can also testify as witnesses. The officers can relate their observations of the scene of the alleged crime, such as physical evidence of abuse or a victim’s statements to the officer at the time of the call. However, a defense attorney can prevent the jury from ever hearing these statements if the victim did not testify at a preliminary hearing, according to the sixth amendment.

Witness testimonies can be a key piece of evidence in the victim’s favor if what the witnesses say aligns with the victim’s claims. If, for example, the victim claims verbal abuse and a witness on the scene can testify that a spouse was yelling at the victim, the jury could take this as proof of the victim’s claims.

Telling The Story

Hiring a therapist who specializes in domestic abuse can help a victim articulate his or her struggles in court. The therapist is a neutral third party who can help a victim tell his or her story in a way that is compelling to the jury. However, if nonphysical abuse is allegated, it can become a situation where it is one person’s word against another’s. If a victim can document his or her abuse, such as keeping a journal with dates and times of abuse and saving abusive text messages or emails, this can serve as concrete evidence in a trial later. Regardless, whenever a case rest on nonphysical evidence, be sure to hire an attorney who knows how to handle anecdotal evidence in front of a jury.