Leaving Children Alone in Cars – Crime or Accident?
It is so easy to be angry at a parent when a child is hurt from being left alone in a hot car. Getting angry is understandably our first impulse. But what if these cases are truly accidents? Case studies show that these accidents are very human to make.
The Case of Juan Rodriguez
Juan Rodriguez, a father from upstate New York, dropped off his 4 year old son at day care and then proceed to work a full day at a local hospital. At the same time, he forgot to drop off his 1 year old twins to a different day care during that same morning. Rodriguez went to work and left the twins in the car all day.
The twins died as a result of the heat while they sat strapped in their car seats. Rodriguez states he swears he dropped off his twins to day care that day. It was only when he started to drive home that he realized the deceased twins were still in the back seat.
Every year, there will be 3 dozen childhood deaths as a result of parents leaving their children in hot cars. There have been 833 childhood deaths since the mid 90’s.
Crime or Accident?
Prosecutors may have a difficult time finding the parents at fault. The biggest reason is that it is challenging to prove that the parent had intent to harm their child. If there is no “mens rea” or intent or awareness of putting their child in danger there can be no charges. (This eleemnt of the crime is irrelevant in Michigan, more on that below). The reality is that most people and parents would never intentionally leave a child alone in a hot car.
In the case of Rodriguez, the district Attorney, Darcel Clark, wanted to charge him with manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide. However, the district attorney put charges on hold.
Amber Rollins, director of kidsandcars.org analyzed 494 childhood heat stroke deaths as a resulting of being forgotten in cars by their caregivers across the country. Of those cases 43% faced no charges, 32% were convicted of a crime, and 11% where charged with a crime but found not guilty.
How Do These Accidents Happen?
It may seem extraordinary to think we could accidentally leave a child in a hot car.
David Diamond, a psychology professor at the University of South Florida, says people are creatures of habit. They drive the same route every day, do the same routines everyday, which prevents their minds from making a new plan or accepting a change in their routine.
People act on autopilot, they make think they did something (like drop the kids off) when the didn’t and go about their normal day.
While it may be difficult for prosecutors to show a person intended to leave a child in a car, there are exceptions. In 2014, Justin Ross Harris was charged with the death of his 22 month old son, Cooper. Harris claims leaving his son in the car was accidental. Harris had exchanged crude, inappropriate texts with six different women the day his son died. The prosecutors argued that Harris’s actions proved he did not want his son in his life any longer. He was sentenced to life in prison and is appealing the decision.
What’s the Law in Michigan?
In Michigan, it is a crime to leave a child unattended in a car for a period of time that poses an unreasonable risk of harm or injury. The severity of the charge increases based on any actual injury to the child.
For example, the standard charge where the child is not hurt is a misdemeanor punishable by up to 93 days in jail. Death of a child is a felony punishable by up to 15 years.
A person can get in trouble for leaving a child in a car regardless of whether a person intended to leave the child in the car. So a person can break the law even if leaving the child in the car was purely an accident.
This doesn’t mean there’s no way to fight the charges. There are still defensible issues in these cases in Michigan. However, whether a person intended to leave the child in the car is not an issue. Read our full article on the issue.
ArborYpsi Law Takeaways
These childhood deaths are most often accidental. Of course most parents would never intentionally leave a child alone in a car. Hopefully, in the future there are safety features in our automobiles that can prevent these tragic childhood deaths.
Sam Bernstein is a Criminal Defense Attorney.
ArborYpsi Law is located at 4158 Washtenaw Ave. Ann Arbor, MI 48108.
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ArborYpsi Law Focuses on Criminal Defense
Sam Bernstein is a criminal defense lawyer in Washtenaw County. He has represented clients in Oakland, Wayne, Livingston, Lenawee and Jackson County. He has practiced criminal defense in Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, Plymouth, Westland, Novi, Howell, Wyandotte, Detroit, Livonia, and Jackson among other Metro-Detroit cities.
If you have been charged with child abuse or childhood endangerment contact ArborYpsi Law. At Arbor Ypsi Law we specialize in criminal defense. Sam Bernstein represents clients charged with sexual assault, drug possesion, expungements, domestic violence, sex crimes, childhood endangerment, child abuse, driving under the influence, driving while intoxicated, traffic tickets, retail fraud, and assault and battery.