INSIDE STORY: Could Chris Brown End Up in Jail?

Experts discuss what really matters when authorities consider domestic abuse cases

Photo: Marco Vitchi/Abaca

Misdemeanor or felony?

As police wind down their investigation of Chris Brown in the alleged beating of Rihanna earlier this month, ultimately the injuries suffered by the victim will determine whether the singer faces a charge carrying a likely penalty of probation – or time behind bars.

So far, no charges of any sort have been filed against Brown, 19, who was arrested Feb. 8 in Los Angeles after allegedly assaulting the R&B star. He was booked by police for making criminal threats – a felony – but the case has not yet been presented to the District Attorney, who will ultimately determine which charges, if any, will be prosecuted.

As shocking as the high-profile case has been, experts say that even ugly-looking domestic assaults don’t necessarily mean automatic jail terms, because misdemeanor charges are overwhelmingly filed in such cases.

For a first-time defendant, which Brown would be, the charge would hinge largely on how badly the victim was hurt. Factors such as a victim’s cooperation with authorities, or whether the victim initiated the struggle, are less important.

“After examining police photos, medical records or reviewing victim statements, the injuries usually speak for themselves,” says L.A. criminal defense attorney Jeffery Rubenstein, who is not involved in the Brown case. “Either they rise to a felony level or they don’t.”

Probation and Counseling

Brown has no known criminal record, and police have yet to officially release any evidence from their investigation, though they have referred to the case as “a domestic violence incident … involving entertainer Chris Brown.” They have not formally identified Rihanna, 21, as the victim.

The distinction between a misdemeanor charge and felony is an important one. A misdemeanor is a crime punishable by up to a year in county jail, but domestic violence cases usually result in probation and counseling. Felonies are punishable by more than a year in state prison.

Last year, the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office filed 2,300 misdemeanor domestic violence cases, compared with only 1,327 felonies.

The Victim’s Role

Whether a victim taunts or strikes first doesn’t get the attacker off the hook. “The question is whether the attacker used unreasonable force when defending him or herself,” says L.A. criminal defense attorney Susan Haber.

And even if the victim wants the case to go away, that would not affect whether a suspect is charged or the severity of the criminal counts. “It’s very common for domestic violence victims to be uncooperative,” Haber says. “They may forgive their significant other, blame themselves for having an argument, and want to forget the fight ever happened.”

She adds: “If the victim’s initial statements corroborate their injuries, that can be enough to file a case.”

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