Whether or not it is illegal to leave a child in the car, unattended, varies from state to state. There are only twenty states in the U.S. that have some sort of law about leaving a child alone in the car, and making it illegal to do so.
In February 2008, the Cameron Gulbransen Kids Transportation Safety Act of 2007 was signed into law. The Act requires the Department of Transportation to issue regulations related to rearward visibility, as well as power window safety and rollaway prevention. This bill is intended to help prevent children from being able to accidentally shift the car into gear while inside the vehicle, especially when they are left alone.
Even if a state does not have a specific law prohibiting leaving children inside a vehicle, criminal charges may be filed under more general laws. Some examples of this would be:
- Endangering the welfare of a minor;
- Negligent parenthood; and/or
- Reckless endangerment.
Tragic incidents can occur when children are left unattended in parked vehicles, especially in the summer months. Regardless of whether children are left in vehicles with the window slightly rolled down, the risk to life greatly increases. This is due to the fact that during the hotter months, the closed environment of a vehicle can reach temperatures above 125 degrees within fifteen minutes.
During other times of the year, leaving children in vehicles can be dangerous due to many different factors. Leaving a child in a parked vehicle can result in heatstroke, as well as other conditions or symptoms like:
- Red, hot, and dry skin;
- Rapid pulse;
- Vomiting; and
Without immediate treatment, heatstroke is potentially fatal. Heatstroke can sometimes lead to long-term medical issues, such as damage to the brain. These risks are even more dangerous for children who are at particular risk, due to the fact that they cannot regulate body temperatures as efficiently as adults.
Finally, leaving a child in a vehicle also increases the risk of kidnapping, and other similar incidents. This is especially true if you have left the child in the vehicle while it is running, with the keys in the ignition.
What Are the Penalties for Leaving Children Unattended in Parked Cars? What Other Consequences Can Result from Leaving a Child Alone in a Car?
Although there is no federal law governing leaving children unattended in park vehicles, state and local laws are currently being enacted. Such laws will potentially allow police to ticket anyone who leaves an underage child in a car, without the supervision of someone who is of the required age. The fee for such a ticket can often range anywhere from $100-$300, along with costly court fees which vary by jurisdiction. At the minimum, you could get a fine for leaving a child unattended in a car.
If any harm comes to the child because they were left in the vehicle, it is likely that the adult responsible for leaving the child will face more serious legal consequences. An example of this would be criminal charges, which can include:
- Jail sentences;
- Community service; and/or
- Additional criminal fines.
If the person who left the child in the vehicle is not the child’s parent, such as a babysitter, the babysitter could face a private lawsuit initiated by the child’s parents. This claim is usually brought under a negligence or recklessness theory of law, and often results in wrongful death damages if the child passes away. Such a lawsuit may result in a damages award, as well as other legal remedies.
There are some cases where if a parent leaves a child in a vehicle unattended, and the child does not pass away, the parent could face additional consequences for their actions. The most notable example of this would include intervention from child protective services (“CPS”), who may take drastic steps such as taking the child away from the parent. The parent could also lose other parental rights, such as loss of child custody rights, and/or loss of child visitation rights.
Finally, the adult found responsible could also face charges of child endangerment, child neglect, or child abuse. As previously mentioned, serious cases may result in reckless endangerment charges as well.
Are There Any Defenses to Leaving a Child Unattended in a Car?
It is important to note that although leaving a child unattended in a car is a very serious matter, those who do so may not be without defense. Available defenses will depend on each individual case, as each case will most likely have different facts surrounding the incident. Additionally, state laws may also differ in terms of the application of legal defenses.
Some examples of defenses that may be available can include:
- Emergency/Necessity: If the person left the child unattended because there was an emergency situation, or if they did it out of necessity. An example of this would be if there is a natural disaster or some other impending danger, causing the child to be separated from the adult and therefore left in the car;
- Coercion: If the person left the child unattended because they were forced to do so under the threat of harm. A very specific example of this would be if the parent or adult was held at gunpoint, and was forced to be moved away from their car with the child still in it. A similar example would be if a person is robbed or was part of a carjacking, and they were separated from the car with the child still inside;
- Intoxication: Some jurisdictions may allow intoxication as defense, especially in cases in which the intoxication affected the person’s ability to act willfully or intentionally. This defense would be particularly effective if the person was intoxicated apart from their own choice or knowledge. An example of this would be if someone else slipped them a pill; and
- Insanity: This defense may only be used if the person was suffering from severe mental illness or defect at the time of the incident. Generally speaking, this defense is based on conditions or illnesses that affect the person’s ability to form the willful intent needed for committing certain offenses. However, this defense is difficult to prove in many cases. And, it can be a risk to raise this in court, as the person could face other consequences such as mandatory medical and/or psychological treatment. The person will then have a record of having a mental disease or defect, which can affect other areas of their life. They could lose custody of the child if the court determines that their mental state is not suitable for them to care for a child.
Should I Hire a Lawyer If I’m Criminally Charged for Leaving a Child in a Car?
If you are facing criminal charges for leaving a child in a car, you should consult with a local criminal lawyer as soon as possible. Because state laws vary so widely regarding the subject, an experienced and local criminal law attorney will be best suited to understanding how your state’s specific laws will affect your legal options.
Additionally, an attorney will also be able to help you determine whether there are any legal defenses available to you, based on the specifics of your case. Finally, an attorney can also represent you in court.