One of the most frequent and tragic instances of child neglect seen across the country is when a parent leaves a child inside of a hot car. In California, the parent will most likely be charged with child endangerment. Under Penal Code 273(a), child endangerment occurs from any conduct that “(a) willfully inflicts unjustifiable pain or mental suffering on a child; (b) willfully allows a child to suffer injury that could have been prevented; or (c) willfully allows or causes the child to be in a situation where his or her health or body may be in danger.”
Actual physical or mental injury isn’t even an element of part (c) of the offense. Because of that, whether to charge a person with child endangerment is frequently up to the investigating police officer’s subjective opinion and determination. This results in innocent people being arrested and prosecuted.
Child endangerment can be charged either as a felony or misdemeanor, mostly depending on the facts of the case. If the child was placed in danger of great bodily harm, the case is likely to be charged as a felony. If there was no risk of great bodily harm, the case is more likely to be charged as a misdemeanor. Whether the person has a known history of poor parenting or prior criminal activity also figure into the charging equation.
A shakey element of the offense is the requisite intent. In a criminal context, if an act or omission is done willfully, it was done with a purportedly justifiable excuse rather than with actual malice. Whether an act or omission was willful can be a defense. Children are injured in ordinary household accidents daily. A boy might trip on the cord of a hot iron, causing the iron to fall on him while mom’s back is turned when folding a shirt. A baby could be left in the care of a trusted teenage niece, and while unknown to the mother, the teen’s boyfriend comes to visit
Another issue can arise in the context of discipline. Every parent in California has the right to discipline their children, and if that involves striking a child with an open hand, it can be perfectly legal. A parent breaks no laws by spanking a child. If a belt is used, we’re getting into a gray area.
False or unfounded accusations of child endangerment are also often made, particularly when family issues spin off into a criminal case against one of the parents. People frequently seek to gain an advantage in a civil case by causing a criminal case to be brought against a spouse or significant other. Many times these accusations are utterly false, and brought in the midst of a divorce or custody battle.
Experienced criminal lawyers have dealt with these scenarios many times in the past and will continue to do so in the future. Our objective is to provide the client with highly professional legal representation during these times, while obtaining the best possible results.