Recent court cases clarify meaning of “disturbing the peace” under Domestic Violence Prevention Act

          October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month.  One relief victims may seek is a restraining order under the Domestic Violence Prevention Act (DVPA) of the California Family Code.  Historically, it has been much easier to define and prove acts of abuse such as molesting, attacking, striking, stalking, threatening, or sexually assaulting.  Courts and practitioners have had more difficulty defining “disturbing the peace,” another behavior that can provide the basis for a restraining order under the DVPA.

           Recent jurisprudence has provided guidance by clarifying the definition of “disturbing the peace” as it pertains to the DVPA.  In In Re: Marriage of Nadkarni, the parties were in the process of separating when husband accessed wife’s emails without her permission and distributed them.  In Re: Marriage of Nadkarni (2009) 173 Cal.App.4th 1483, 1489.  The appellate court found the trial court erred in failing to find abuse sufficient to warrant an order under the DVPA.  The appellate court confirmed that there need not be a showing of physical injury or assault, but that several types of nonviolent conduct constitute abuse.  Id. at 1496.

            The Nadkarni decision confirmed that contacting the other party “either directly or indirectly, by mail or otherwise” may constitute abuse. Cal. Fam. Code § 6320, Id.  The court also defined the plain meaning of the phrase “disturbing the peace of the other party,” as conduct that destroys the mental or emotional calm of the other party.  Id. at 1497.  In the case of Nadkarni, the court specifically found that husband’s actions destroyed the mental or emotional calm of his former wife by accessing, reading and publicly disclosing her confidential emails.  Id. at 1498.

            In Burquet v. Brumbaugh an ex-boyfriend continued to contact and harass his ex-girlfriend after being clearly told she no longer wanted contact.  Burquet v. Brumbaugh (2014) 223 Cal.App.4th 1140, 1142.  The court upheld the definition of disturbing the peace as defined in Nadkarni, and applied it to the context of a non-marital relationship in which the abuse consisted of a nonviolent but unwanted course of conduct of contacting plaintiff by phone, email, and text, and showing up uninvited and causing a scene.  Id. at 1147.  The appellate court confirmed the trial court’s decision that the “actions ‘disturbed the peace of the other party.’ Such a disturbance of plaintiff’s ‘peace’ in the present case constitutes an act of ‘abuse’ under the DVPA.”  Id. at 1144.

            The most recent case of Evilsizor v. Sweeney (2015) 237 Cal.App.4th 1416 affirms physical abuse is not necessary to warrant a restraining order and that disclosing the personal details of someone’s life can constitute abuse.  In Evilsizor, the appellate court affirmed the trial court’s finding that “the disclosure of various communications can constitute disturbing the peace of the other party within the meaning of the domestic violence statute.”  Id. at p. 1425. Further, this finding of abuse is made acknowledging there was no history of physical abuse.  Id.   

          The above three cases recognize that abuse does not necessarily always come in physical form. Nonviolent behaviors can be abusive, harassing and damaging within the context of domestic violence. This elucidation provides greater access to the legal remedy for enjoining these behaviors under the DVPA.