At the start of every summer, tragic incidents can occur when children are left unattended in parked cars or vehicle. Regardless of whether children are left in cars with the window slightly rolled down, the risk to life in summer months greatly increase. 

During the hotter months, the closed environment of a car can heat up within 15 minutes to temperatures above 125 degrees. Even at other times of the year, leaving children in cars can be dangerous, depending on the area and other factors.

Leaving a child in a parked car can result in heatstroke and other conditions or symptoms like:

  • Red, hot and dry skin;
  • Rapid pulse;
  • Headache;
  • Dizziness;
  • Nausea;
  • Vomiting; and
  • Unconsciousness.

Without immediate treatment, heatstroke is potentially fatal, and can sometimes lead to long-term medical issues such as damage to the brain. Risks are even more dangerous for children, who are at particular risk because they cannot regulate body temperatures as efficiently as adults.

Finally, leaving a child in a car also increases the risk of kidnapping and other similar incidents. 

What are the Penalties for Leaving Children Unattended in Parked Cars?

Although there is no uniform law, state and local laws are currently being enacted to 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 can often range anywhere from $100-$300, along with costly court fees.

 

If anything happens to the child, more serious legal consequences can occur, such as criminal charges which can include: 

  • Jail sentences;
  • Probation;
  • Community service; and 
  • Additional criminal fines.

If the person who left the child in the car is not the child’s parent (for example, if they are a babysitter), they can sometimes face a private lawsuit initiated by the parents of the child. This claim is usually brought under a negligence or recklessness theory of law, and can result in wrongful death damages if the child passes away. A private civil lawsuit may result in a damages award and other legal remedies. 

What Other Consequences can Result from Leaving a Child Unattended in a Car?

In some cases, if a parent leaves a child in a car unattended, and the child does not pass away, the parent may face additional consequences for their actions. This can include intervention from child protective services (CPS), who may take steps such as taking the child away from the parent. The parent might also lose other parental rights, such as:

  • Loss of child custody rights; and/or
  • Loss of child visitation rights.

Lastly, the person might also face charges of child endangerment, child neglect, or child abuse. Serious cases may result in reckless endangerment charges as well. 

Are there any Defenses to Leaving a Child Unattended in a Car?

A person who is facing legal issues due to leaving a child unattended in a car might have some legal defenses available to them. These will of course depend on each individual case, as each case may have different facts surrounding the incident. State laws may also differ with regard to the application of legal defenses.

Some legal defenses that might be available in these types of cases can include:

  • Emergency/Necessity: It may be a defense if the person left the child unattended in a car because there was an emergency situation, or if they did it out of necessity. 
    • An example of this is if there is a natural disaster or some kind of impending danger that caused the child to be separated from the adult and left in the car; 
  • Coercion: It may be a legal defense if the person left the child unattended in a vehicle because they were forced to do so under the threat of harm. 
    • For instance, if the parent or adult was held at gunpoint and forced to be moved away from their car with the child still in it, they may be able to raise this as a defense in a court of law. A similar situation is where a person is robbed or was part of a carjacking situation, and they were separated from the car with the child or infant still in it; 
  • Intoxication: Some jurisdictions may allow intoxication as a type of legal defense, especially in cases where the intoxication affected the person’s ability to act willfully or intentionally. The case may be strengthened if the person was intoxicated apart from their own choice or knowledge (for instance, if someone slipped them a pill or other substance); 
  • Insanity: This defense may be raised if the person was suffering from severe mental illness or defect at the time of the incident. In most cases, this defense is based on conditions or illnesses that affect the person’s ability to form the willful intent that is needed for committing certain offenses. 
    • However, note that this defense is difficult to prove in many cases. It can also be a risk to raise this in court, as the person might face other consequences such as mandatory medical/psychological treatment. Treatment can sometimes take longer than an actual jail or prison sentence.
    • Also, the person will then have a record of having a mental disease or defect, which can affect other areas of their life as well. They may also 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?

Child endangerment is a serious charge that can lead to jail time, and possibly a Child Protective Services investigation that may result in the placement of your child or children in foster care. 

Because of the serious repercussions that can occur from leaving a child in an unattended car, it is wise to seek counsel from a criminal lawyer, who can help explain your rights to you and help you formulate a defense strategy.