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What are the Sexual Assault Laws in California?

Posted by Dmitry Gorin | Feb 15, 2022

Sexual assault, also called "sexual battery," is a serious offense. Sexual assault crimes in California range from misdemeanor to felony offenses, but even a misdemeanor charge can carry serious long-term consequences if you are convicted.

Not only could you be facing significant jail time and stiff fines, but you may also be required to register as a sex offender for a minimum of 10 years—and possibly for life, depending on the severity of the crime.

Sexual Assault Laws in California
Sexual assault can be charged as a misdemeanor or felony depending on the details of the case.

California Penal Code 243.4 PC defines “sexual battery” as touching someone's intimate parts, against their will, for the purpose of sexual gratification, arousal, or abuse.

The “touching” in the context of a sexual battery case means to make physical contact with the victim's bare skin or through their clothing. An “intimate part” is legally defined as a female breast, someone's groin, anus, buttocks, or sexual organs.

A misdemeanor sexual battery conviction carries up to one year in county jail and a fine of up to $3,000. A felony case carries up to four years in a California state prison and a fine of up to $10,000.

This page from our Los Angeles criminal defense lawyers will provide a basic overview of California's sexual assault laws, including what constitutes sexual assault, the penalties for conviction, related offenses, and some common ways attorneys may defend against these charges.

Overview of Sexual Assault Laws in California

In simplest terms, sexual assault refers to any non-consensual sexual contact that is carried out against another person's will. Any time the other person does not consent, the sexual act is considered a crime. Under California law, a lack of consent can include any of the following:

  • Occurring directly against the victim's will (i.e., the person says "no");
  • The victim is unable to consent or resist (e.g., due to a disability.);
  • The victim is unaware of the act and cannot consent (e.g., unconsciousness, intoxication);
  • The victim is defrauded into consent (e.g., the perpetrator poses as a medical professional and initiates sexual contact under false pretenses).

Any form of unwanted touching of "intimate parts" is considered sexual assault, regardless of whether any penetration occurred, and even when touching occurs while clothed. Additionally, forcing any other person to touch themselves intimately or someone else constitutes sexual assault.

Types of Sexual Assault in California

While California has many laws criminalizing unlawful or unwanted sexual contact, the specific crime of sexual assault typically falls into one of three categories:

Misdemeanor sexual battery (Penal Code 243.4 PC): Misdemeanor offenses involve touching the intimate parts of someone else without their consent for the purpose of one's sexual gratification. Examples might include groping a female's breast or someone's buttocks without permission. Misdemeanor sexual battery can result in up to a year in jail and fines up to $2000.

Felony sexual battery (Penal Code 243.4 PC): Sexual battery is considered a felony when the circumstances are more severe or aggressive—for example, unlawfully restraining the victim to touch them, fraudulent sexual touching under the pretense of professional purposes, or sexual battery against a disabled person. A conviction can result in fines of up to $10,000 and 4 years in prison.

Rape (Penal Code 261 PC): Engaging in sexual intercourse (involving penetration) with someone against their will or with someone unable to consent, whether by force, threats, or fraud. A conviction can result in up to 8 years in prison.

Aggravated sexual assault of a child (Penal Code 269 PC): This felony crime is defined as committing a sexual act, such as rape, sexual penetration, sodomy, oral copulation on a child under 14 when the child is at least seven years younger than the perpetrator. A conviction carries a sentence of 15 years to life in state prison.

Sex Offender Registration

Regardless of the severity of the offense, a conviction for sexual assault requires you to register as a sex offender. For misdemeanor sexual battery, you will have to maintain current registration on the registry for a minimum of 10 years. For most felony sexual assault or rape convictions, you will have to remain on the registry for life.

Sex Offender Registration in California

California Senate Bill 384 changed the sex registry to a three-tiered system effective January 1, 2021. This new system varies the length of time required based on the severity of the crime.

Tier 1 offenses: minimum ten years on the registry. This includes low-level sex offenses such as indecent exposure, sexual battery, and only misdemeanor sex crime convictions.

Tier 2 offenses: minimum 20 years on the registry. This includes mid-level sex offenses such as sodomy, lewd acts with a minor, etc.

Tier 3 offenses: lifetime registration. This involves the most severe sexual violations, multiple offenders, and sex crimes involving violence, such as violent acts, such as rape and forced sodomy.  It also includes child pornography, sex trafficking, etc.

What are the Related Sex Offenses?

  • Oral copulation by force or fear (Penal Code 287 PC): The unwanted sexual contact between the mouth of one person and the sexual organs of another.
  • Statutory rape (Penal Code 261.5 PC): Sexual intercourse with a minor, even when consensual (similar in scope to misdemeanor forcible penetration).
  • Indecent exposure (Penal Code 314 PC): Willfully exposing one's private parts in public for purposes of sexual gratification or among those who are likely to be offended by it.
  • Forcible sexual penetration with a foreign object (Penal Code 289 PC): Using any object or non-sexual body part to penetrate the vagina or anus of another against their will.
  • Child molestation crimes. California has multiple laws criminalizing sexual contact with minors, carrying potentially severe penalties. These include (but are not limited to) lewd conduct with a minor, oral copulation with a minor, sodomy, child pornography or prostitution, and others.

Defending Against Charges of Sexual Assault in California

While charges of sexual assault can have serious repercussions if you are convicted, there are ways to defend against these charges successfully. The most common defense strategies include the following:

  • The act was consensual. The defining factor in sexual assault is that the victim did not, or could not, consent. The attorney may present evidence to show that the sex act was mutual.
  • Lack of evidence. While acts of rape leave physical forensic evidence, unwanted touching generally does not. Unless there are witnesses to corroborate the claim of sexual battery, your attorney may be able to get the charges dismissed for lack of sufficient evidence.

Further, each sexual assault-related offense listed above has aspects of the crime that the prosecutor must prove. Aggressive representation could successfully defend against sexual assault charges when the evidence leaves some room for reasonable doubt, or perhaps the police have violated rights to obtain that evidence.

Defending Against Charges of Sexual Assault
There are several common defenses we can use on your behalf against allegations of sexual assault.

Law enforcement sometimes violate constitutional rights when searching for evidence or interrogating a defendant so as to require suppression of evidence motion.

Sex crime charges are frequently difficult to prove, given directly opposing testimony about what happened.

In some cases, the prosecution might be more willing to accept a reduced plea or dismiss the sexual assault charge if it appears too difficult to prove in front of a jury.

Eisner Gorin LLP is located in Los Angeles County and represents people throughout Southern California, including Orange County, Ventura County, Santa Barbara County, Riverside, and San Bernardino. You can reach our law firm for an initial consultation by calling (310) 328-3776 or filling out our contact form.

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About the Author

Dmitry Gorin

Dmitry Gorin is a licensed attorney, who has been involved in criminal trial work and pretrial litigation since 1994. Before becoming partner in Eisner Gorin LLP, Mr. Gorin was a Senior Deputy District Attorney in Los Angeles Courts for more than ten years. As a criminal tri...

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