New CA Law Codifies what Victims and Experts Know: Coercive Control is Domestic Violence

      On September 29, 2020, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed a bill clarifying that conduct used to establish “coercive control” constitutes abuse under CA’s Domestic Violence Prevention Act. This is a welcome recognition of a long-established form of abuse that can be rather invisible, but no less dangerous to victim-survivors. We thank domestic violence expert Professor Nancy Lemon and all our colleagues at FVAP for their dedication in ensuring this bill reflects the most accurate evidence about coercive control. 


     Much of intimate partner violence is non-physical and many victims report experiencing a hostage-like situation within an abusive relationship. Experts have thus often used the non-injury model of “coercive control” to explain the dynamics of intimate partner violence. The term was first popularized in 2007 by the work of Dr. Evan Stark, who described coercive control as a pattern through which abusive partners–typically males–employ combinations of violence, intimidation, isolation, humiliation, and control to subordinate their partners. In this framework, physical violence is only one dimension of the complex interplays in an abusive relationship. Importantly, Dr. Stark argued that “what men do to women is less important than what they prevent women from doing for themselves.”  


     Now, the new Senate bill, SB1141: Domestic violence: coercive control, passed by both houses and signed by the Governor, amends Section 6320 of the Family Code so that “disturbing the peace of the other party”—a grounds for a DV Restraining order—includes Coercive Control. The legislature has unambiguously recognized that such non-physical actions “destroy the mental or emotional calm” of victims.  


Specifically, the amended statute defines coercive control as a pattern of behavior that in purpose or effect unreasonably interferes with a person’s free will and personal liberty.” 


The following examples of coercive control are included in amended Section 6320 of the Family Code:  

(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. 


     Our appellate courts have already pointedly recognized coercive control as a form of intimate partner violence.  Importantly, earlier this year, McCord v. Smith (2020) specifically found that coercive and controlling behavior are domestic violence under California’s restraining order laws. The appellate court noted that seemingly isolated events must be evaluated in the wider context of the relationship to determine the “totality of circumstances” for purposes of issuing a restraining order. In this case, the court notes“The trial court found the text message was a part of an overall series of actions by McCord that threatened Smith’s peace of mind: Mr. McCord’s behavior and continually following up, visiting Ms. Smith’s house, text messaging her, sending her photographs of herself and of her nursing license, asking a fairly rhetorical question, ‘Is this yours?’ when he knew full well the nursing license was hers . . . shows that he did intend to exercise some form of dominion and control.”   


We at ADZ welcome the new legislative change because it will further ensure uniformity of appropriate responses at the trial level, which is where the vast majority of victim-survivors interact with the courts.  


Coercive control within a relationship is harmful and violation enough; no court should question whether such control and dominion are in fact abuse. The California Legislature now thankfully agrees.