Below we explain how the law is interpretated and applied in California.
- Overview Of Penal Code 273(a)
- How Does the Prosecutor Prove Child Endangerment?
- Important Evidence In Child Endangerment Cases
- Legal Defenses
- Information On The Criminal Court Process
Overview Of Penal Code 273(a)
Like any other criminal offense, there are certain elements to the crime.
If you engaged in any of the following acts, you could be convicted of child endangerment under Penal Code 273(a):
Child endangerment is a wobbler which means that you may be charged with either a misdemeanor or a felony under California law.
If your conduct was such that a child was left in a condition or situation that was likely to cause great bodily harm or death3, then you can be charged with a felony or a misdemeanor in the discretion of the prosecutor.
If “great bodily harm or death” in the context of having been inflicted or that the child was exposed to the risk of it is not proven or demonstrated, then the offense is a misdemeanor.
How Does the Prosecutor Prove Child Endangerment?
A prosecutor has to prove each element of a criminal offense.
Element of Willfulness
One of the elements of child endangerment is that the defendant willfully engaged in one of the acts cited above.
Willful means intentional or purposeful but does not imply that you specifically intended to harm the child4.
A classic case is leaving a child in the care of someone whom you had cause to suspect or believe would harm the child and an injury was inflicted.
It is the act of intentionally or willfully allowing the child to be cared for by a violent person who likely injured the child on a prior occasion that is a criminal act.
A prosecutor can prove willfulness in this case by showing from medical records or testimony from physicians or witnesses that the child had suffered bruises and injuries in the past while left with the person who caused the injuries for which the defendant is charged.
A defendant may also have made comments to others that she feared leaving the child with this person but did so anyway.
Element of Unjustifiable Physical Pain or Suffering
Unjustifiable is unnecessary or excessive pain or suffering.
If a child is left in a closet for hours without food or water or tied to a bed for days, this is considered unjustifiable physical pain or mental suffering regardless if the intent was to punish the child5.
Element of Causing a Child to be placed in a Dangerous Situation
Every summer it seems that a parent is charged with having left a child locked in a car seat while the parent gets drunk in a bar or inexplicably forgets the child. The weather outside is 100 degrees but well above that in the vehicle.
While you did not injure the child, you knew the weather was excessively warm and that leaving the child in a locked car would lead to a dangerous condition that could cause great bodily harm or death.
Another example is not obtaining medical care for a child who is obviously very ill or injured.
Negligence means that an individual has a duty to exercise reasonable care toward someone. If you act recklessly or in a manner that is a gross departure from how a reasonable person would act under similar circumstances, then you may have acted with criminal negligence.
DUI & Child Endangerment
Driving while intoxicated with a child who is under the age of 14 as a passenger is reckless conduct and you can be charged with a child endangerment enhancement pursuant to Vehicle Code 23572 VC.
You are especially vulnerable if your blood alcohol level is elevated, or over 0.15%, which is more than twice the legal limit. You also face the additional charge of child endangerment under PC 273a.
An elevated BAC along with your driving pattern is strong evidence that you were engaged in conduct reasonably likely to inflict great bodily injury or death upon the child because of the high incidence of serious injury or death by intoxicated drivers.
No Religous Exemption
There is also no religious exemption for criminal negligence.
In the past, parents who were Jehovah’s Witnesses and opted to pray for their child who was seriously ill rather than take the child to be treated with standard medical treatment that would have saved the child’s life is not conduct that a reasonable person would have engaged in.
Important Evidence In Child Endangerment Cases
It can sometimes be difficult for prosecutors to prove either that child endangerment occurred or that the defendant committed it.
To prove the charge, prosecutors will look to certain evidence.
To prove child endangerment, prosecutors will examine the child’s medical records to see if the child had a medical history of bruises or injuries that appear suspicious or if the child had a preexisting condition. Records can indicate that a parent or caregiver gave unlikely explanations for the injuries or that the adult seemed unconcerned. Welts, burns and bruises especially in intimate areas can be indications of abuse.
Often, the record will show that authorities were summoned but that there was no action taken because of insufficient evidence but that the defendant or someone else was suspected.
Physical Condition of the Child
Of course, the physical condition of the child is an essential piece of evidence. An expert can testify that certain injuries either could not have been caused in the manner alleged by the defendant or that it was highly unlikely. For example, the expert could explain that internal or other injuries could not have been caused by falling down but by a blunt force instrument or by being thrown about.
Also, a child who is severely malnourished or seriously ill and has not received any medical care is prime evidence of neglect that can constitute child endangerment.
Confession or Statements by Defendant
The best evidence is either a confession by the defendant that force was used on the child or that he or she was only disciplining the child that was obviously excessive.
Defendants often comment to others that a spouse or partner has been abusing the child but that the child was still allowed to be in that person’s care, which is causing or permitting the child to be placed in a dangerous situation.
Condition of the Home
Other evidence is the condition of the home. If the residence shows toilets that are not running, there is little or no food in the refrigerator, the child sleeps on a dirty mattress in a non-heated home and lacks clean clothing that is torn, then the defendant parent or caretaker could be charged with criminal negligence.
When police of child protective services investigates, there is sometimes evidence of controlled substances in the home that is further evidence of child endangerment.
There are a number of defenses available to a defendant charged with child endangerment.
Lack of Willfulness
If you did not intend to harm the child or the child was injured because of an accident, then you may have a defense.
If an accident, you must not have caused a chain of events that led to the injury such as leaving a loaded gun in an open and easily accessible location.
If your child was injured on a playground because you were talking to another parent, you did not willfully cause or permit your child to suffer unjustifiable harm.
Parents have the right to discipline their children in a reasonable manner7. Using a whip or belt and leaving excessive bruising or bleeding is probably unreasonable. Use of your hand alone is probably not considered excessive, The prosecution will consider the age and size of the child, the injuries that occurred and the amount of the punishment.
In many custody battles or situations where parents intensely dislike one another, there are accusations of abuse or child endangerment. In some cases, a parent may convince a young child to accuse the other parent of abuse.
Caretakers may accuse the parents of abuse in an attempt to cover up their own conduct. Or, a child who is angry at a parent or caretaker may embellish or fabricate allegations without appreciating the seriousness of the accusation.
Compounding the incidence of false accusations is that certain persons are required to report suspected child abuse to authorities.
Medical care providers, teachers, administrators, coaches, clergy and social workers face criminal penalties if they fail to report suspected cases.
If a child was injured in an accident or there are suspicious bruises in the genital area or other intimate parts that were either self-inflicted or caused by someone else, the parent could still be charged.
No Evidence of Serious Bodily Harm
Serious bodily harm usually refers to injuries such as broken limbs, internal injuries or other injuries requiring medical attention although there is no requirement that a person received medical care for the injury to be considered serious bodily harm.
It also encompasses permanent disfigurement, extreme physical pain and loss of or impairment of a bodily function. Serious cuts, injuries requiring extensive stitches, a concussion, paralysis and spinal injuries are also considered serious bodily injuries.
You do not have to have actually inflicted serious bodily harm so long as you placed the child at risk of that occurring.
However, it is a question of fact for a jury or finder-of-fact to determine if the injury constituted serious bodily harm. An injury that heals quickly without any residuals may be considered as non-serious for purposes of the statute.
Child endangerment can be a felony8 or misdemeanor depending on whether the child suffered or was exposed to a risk of great bodily harm or death.
Below are the penalties for both misdemeanor and felony convictions.
|Fine||Up to $1,000||Up to $10,000|
|Probation||Min 4 years summary probation||Min of 4 years formal probation|
|Jail or Prison||Up to 6 months county jail||2, 4, or 6 years state prison|
Additional Conditions The Court Can Impose
- A protective order whereby you are prohibited from any contact with the child or to stay away from the child’s residence9
- Attending and completing a child abuser counseling program that is at least one-year in duration
- Refraining from alcohol or drugs if you were using either at the time of the abuse
- Being subject to random drug testing
Information On The Criminal Court Process
The following links have information on the criminal court process:
- How Bail Works In California
- How A Case Gets Filed
- Step 1 In A Criminal Case – The Arraignment
- Motion To Suppress Evidence
- The Plea Bargain Process Between Prosecution & Defense Attorney
- Criminal Trials – A Step By Step Overview
Next Steps If You Need Help
If you have been arrested and would like to learn more about how attorneys charge.
If you want to understand why its important to have an attorney represent you.
If you would like to discuss a pending case with an attorney contact the Aizman Law Firm at 818-351-9555 for a free confidential consultation.
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- People v. Smith (1984) 35 Cal. 3d 798,806
- People v. Cortes (1999) 71 Cal.App.4th 62,80
- People v. Burroughs (1984) 35 Cal.3d 824,831
- People v. Lara, 44 Cal. App. 4th 102, 51 Cal. Rptr. 2d 402 (Ct. App. 1996).
- People v. Jaramillo (1979) 98 Cal.App.3d 830
- People v. Valdez (2002) 27 Cal.4th 778
- People v. Whitehurst, 9 Cal. App. 4th 1045, 12 Cal. Rptr. 2d 33 (Ct. App. 1992).
- Penal Code 273.5(a) – Any person who willfully inflicts corporal injury resulting in a traumatic condition upon a victim described in subdivision (b) is guilty of a felony, and upon conviction thereof shall be punished by imprisonment in the state prison for two, three, or four years, or in a county jail for not more than one year, or by a fine of up to six thousand dollars ($6,000), or by both that fine and imprisonment., available at https://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/codes_displaySection.xhtml?lawCode=PEN§ionNum=273.5.
- Penal Code 273.5(j) – Upon conviction under subdivision (a), the sentencing court shall also consider issuing an order restraining the defendant from any contact with the victim, which may be valid for up to 10 years, as determined by the court. It is the intent of the Legislature that the length of any restraining order be based upon the seriousness of the facts before the court, the probability of future violations, and the safety of the victim and his or her immediate family. This protective order may be issued by the court whether the defendant is sentenced to state prison or county jail, or if imposition of sentence is suspended and the defendant is placed on probation., available at https://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/codes_displaySection.xhtml?lawCode=PEN§ionNum=273.5.