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We have special responsibilities to our children including keeping them healthy and safe. California punishes those who harm children or who expose them to a dangerous condition or situation under California Penal Code 273(a), or Child Endangerment. It states as follows:
273a. (a) Any person who, under circumstances or conditions likely to produce great bodily harm or death, willfully causes or permits any child to suffer, or inflicts thereon unjustifiable physical pain or mental suffering, or having the care or custody of any child, willfully causes or permits the person or health of that child to be injured, or willfully causes or permits that child to be placed in a situation where his or her person or health is endangered, shall be punished by imprisonment in a county jail not exceeding one year, or in the state prison for two, four, or six years.
(b) Any person who, under circumstances or conditions other than those likely to produce great bodily harm or death, willfully causes or permits any child to suffer, or inflicts thereon unjustifiable physical pain or mental suffering, or having the care or custody of any child, willfully causes or permits the person or health of that child to be injured, or willfully causes or permits that child to be placed in a situation where his or her person or health may be endangered, is guilty of a misdemeanor.
(c) If a person is convicted of violating this section and probation is granted, the court shall require the following minimum conditions of probation:
(1) A mandatory minimum period of probation of 48 months.
(2) A criminal court protective order protecting the victim from further acts of violence or threats, and, if appropriate, residence exclusion or stay-away conditions.
(3) (A) Successful completion of no less than one year of a child abuser’s treatment counseling program approved by the probation department. The defendant shall be ordered to begin participation in the program immediately upon the grant of probation. The counseling program shall meet the criteria specified in Section 273.1. The defendant shall produce documentation of program enrollment to the court within 30 days of enrollment, along with quarterly progress reports.
(B) The terms of probation for offenders shall not be lifted until all reasonable fees due to the counseling program have been paid in full, but in no case shall probation be extended beyond the term provided in subdivision (a) of Section 1203.1. If the court finds that the defendant does not have the ability to pay the fees based on the defendant’s changed circumstances, the court may reduce or waive the fees.
(4) If the offense was committed while the defendant was under the influence of drugs or alcohol, the defendant shall abstain from the use of drugs or alcohol during the period of probation and shall be subject to random drug testing by his or her probation officer.
(5) The court may waive any of the above minimum conditions of probation upon a finding that the condition would not be in the best interests of justice. The court shall state on the record its reasons for any waiver.
Elements of Child Endangerment
Child endangerment has the following elements:
- Causing or permitting a child to suffer unjustifiable physical pain or mental suffering, or
- Willfully causing a child in their care to be injured, or
- Willfully causing a child to be placed in a dangerous situation
A child for purposes of the California law includes anyone under the age of 18.
Unjustifiable Physical Pain
Unjustifiable physical pain is pain that is unnecessary or is excessive. This is a subjective determination since moderate physical punishment such as a spanking might be construed as unjustifiable or not.
Your actions must also have been criminally negligent, or your act was reckless or a gross departure from ordinary conduct, or which amounted to an indifference or disregard for human life that a reasonable person would know would likely lead to harm.
Examples of Child Endangerment
- Operating a meth lab with children present
- Leaving loaded firearms open and available to a minor
- Neglecting to obtain medical treatment for an injured or ill child
- Knowingly allowing an abusive person or violent person to care for your child
- Allowing someone with a history of pedophilia or sex crimes to care for your child
- Playing tag with your child in traffic
Leaving your children for hours in your locked apartment is certainly not sound parenting, but it does not rise to the level of placing them in a dangerous condition or any other element of child abandonment absent other aggravating facts. Leaving your children for hours in a locked, unventilated car in 100 degree weather may be conduct that is so indifferent to human life that a reasonable person knows would lead to harm.
The severity of your penalty depends on whether the child suffered an injury and its seriousness. If the facts indicate your conduct did not pose a risk of great bodily injury or death to the child, you will be charged with a misdemeanor and face:
- Up to 180 days in jail
- A fine up to $1,000
- Informal probation for up to 4 years
- Participation in a child abuser’s program for one year
- Protective and/or Restraining order prohibiting you from committing further acts and ordering you to refrain from any contact with the victim
- If alcohol was involved, an order to abstain along with random drug tests
If the child was exposed to a risk of great bodily harm, the prosecutor still has the discretion to charge you with either a misdemeanor or felony.
As a felony, you face 2, 4 or 6 years in state prison, a fine up to $10,000, and all the above conditions that apply to misdemeanor convictions.
Should the child have suffered great bodily injury, your sentence can be enhanced by adding and serving consecutively 3 to 6 years in state prison. This is also a potential strike on your record. A second strike will double your prison time. A third strike is mandatory minimum prison time of 25 years to life.
Defenses to Child Endangerment
There are various defenses available to child endangerment charges:
- No willful intent
Allowing a person whom you did not know was violent to care for your child is not endangerment. You have to intentionally inflict harm or so act as to knowingly place the child in danger. If you always locked the gun compartment but a friend forgot to do so, this may not be intentionally placing your children in a dangerous situation.
- False accusations
Vengeful spouses or partners can falsely accuse you as can a child. It is important to interview witnesses and gather as much information as possible in these cases.
- You are innocent
Child care workers, school officials, doctors, teachers and others are required to report suspected child abuse. An injury at school or one sustained in a fight with a classmate, or an injury caused by another child care provider could be misconstrued as child endangerment on your part.
Other Child Endangerment Offenses
DUI With Child Endangerment
Most if not all states will enhance your sentence for committing a certain offense if children are present and were injured or willfully or intentionally placed in a dangerous situation. For a DUI charge where a minor was a passenger in the defendant’s vehicle, you could either be charged with a DUI with a child endangerment enhancement, or DUI and child endangerment as separate offenses.
For the enhancement offense, the child must be under 14. Your penalty includes serving any time imposed for the DUI conviction along with a consecutive sentence of:
- 48 hours in jail for first offenders
- 10 days for a second DUI conviction
- 30 days for a third DUI
- 90 days for a fourth and subsequent conviction
If this is your fourth DUI conviction in 10 years, it is likely you could face felony DUI charges so that these particular enhancements would not apply.
If you are convicted of DUI and the separate charge of child endangerment, however, the court may not cause you to serve the additional time as permitted for the DUI with child endangerment enhancement.
Retain a California Criminal Defense Attorney
Being charged with child endangerment creates a powerful stigma. If convicted, you can lose parental rights as well as substantial difficulties in finding suitable employment, housing, travel, obtaining credit and other barriers to leading a normal life. Contact a California criminal defense lawyer if you face child endangerment charges.