The crime of child endangerment is similar to the offense of child abuse, however, child endangerment does not require a physical injury to be caused upon the minor-child. In order for a person to be guilty of child endangerment (Penal Code section 273(a)), a prosecutor must prove the defendant acted negligently while doing any of the following to a minor:
- willfully inflicted unjustifiable physical pain or mental suffering
- willfully caused or permitted a child to suffer unjustifiable pain or mental suffering
- while having care/custody of a child, willfully caused or permitted the minor’s person or health to be injured
- while having care/custody of a child, willfully caused or permitted the minor to be placed in a situation where the child’s person or health was endangered
The level of “negligence” shown by the defendant must be
- a gross departure from the way a ordinarily careful person would act in the same situation
- the act amounts to a disregard for human life or an indifference to the consequences of his/her acts
- a reasonable person would have known that acting that way would naturally and probably result in harm to others
The most common examples of child endangerment include, but are certainly not limited to:
- driving under the influence while the minor is a passenger in the car
- leaving a minor in the car, unattended, during extreme temperatures
- failing to properly feed or care for the minor’s necessities of life
- excessive acts of discipline
- leaving drugs or weapons accessible in the home to a minor
It is significant to note that a physical injury to the minor is not required, only the “risk” of unjustifiable pain or suffering. If injury to the minor does occurs, then a child abuse offense could be charged in addition to child endangerment.
There are many defenses available to an allegation of child endangerment. These include, but are not limited to:
- accidental or unintentional conduct (“a minor grabs a cutting knife from kitchen counter and hurts himself while parent went to use bathroom for a moment”)
- factual innocence (“the minor doesn’t like the discipline imposed upon him and “makes up” a story that he hasn’t been “fed for days” by his mother”)
- lawful discipline (“the defendant sent the minor to his room every day, after school, for a month and otherwise, the minor is kept healthy”)
Given that many unforeseen situations can occur that expose a risk of harm to a minor, whether in the family car or home, the real test is whether a reasonable person would have foreseen the harm or the risk of harm that the minor was exposed to. For this reason, it is important to speak to any attorney immediately about the details of what happened so that all the details of the incident can be properly evaluated, and a proper defense strategy employed.
Child endangerment offenses can be charged as a misdemeanor or as a felony, depending on the circumstances of the case (the actual injury suffered, or the level of risk involved, age of the child, defendant’s criminal history, past acts of neglect, etc.). For misdemeanor convictions, the defendant can be sentenced to a period of years of informal probation (up to four years), up to one year of custody in county jail, attendance at parenting classes, fines/fees and restitution to the victim (if applicable). The prosecutor will also automatically request the judge to impose upon the defendant a criminal protective order.
For felony convictions, the defendant may either receive a term of formal probation (a probation officer is assigned to the defendant), up to one year of custody in county jail, attendance at parenting classes, fines/fees and restitution to the minor (if applicable). If probation is denied, then the defendant is facing confinement in state prison for 2 years, 4 years, or 6 years. Also, if the defendant has prior child abuse convictions or causes “great bodily injury” or death to the minor, or has other aggravating factors, the punishment may increase dramatically.
The prosecutor will also likely request the judge to impose upon the defendant a criminal protective order.
Additionally, any felony child endangerment conviction will result in a lifetime ban on owning or possessing a firearm. Moreover, any firearms that the defendant owns or has in his/her possession will have to be given up or confiscated. A misdemeanor conviction will not require any firearm ban.