Leaving a child alone in a car refers to a person failing to take a minor child with them when they leave a vehicle, leaving the child in the vehicle alone. A minor child is a child who is under the age of 18. Leaving a child alone in a vehicle is one of many acts that can constitute child endangerment or child neglect. Child endangerment and neglect laws make it a crime to endanger a minor’s life or health.

In Texas, it is a crime to leave a minor under the age of 7 alone and unattended in a vehicle for more than 5 minutes. That is because leaving a child alone in a car could lead to the child being victimized by a criminal, even if the car doors are locked. And in the summer, the temperature inside a car can greatly exceed the temperature outside of the car. It can become dangerously hot inside a car to the point where a child can die from heat stroke.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has said that the temperature of the body of a child goes up three to five times faster than an adult’s body temperature, so a child in a hot car can potentially die within minutes. On average every year in the U.S. 38 children die of heat stroke, because they were left alone in overheated cars.
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However, there are three crimes at issue when it comes to leaving a child alone or in harm’s way, which means in a situation in which a child could be hurt. This can involve leaving a child alone in a car, at home or in any other situation in which the child does not have adequate care and supervision, e.g. alone in a hotel room.

In Texas, a person could be charged with a crime for leaving a child alone or in harm’s way because of laws which make it a crime to abandon a child, endanger a child, or leave a child in a vehicle. Abandoning a child and endangering a child are two different felony offenses that apply to children under the age of 15. Leaving a child in a vehicle, again, applies to children under the age of 7. This means that whether or not the child is hurt or injured, just leaving the child alone in a car for more than 5 minutes if the child is under the age of 7 is a criminal offense.

However, remember that Texas law forbids abandoning a child or endangering a child, so if a person were to leave a child who is 7 or older alone in a car and the child were to be injured or harmed, the person could be charged with the criminal felony of abandoning a child or felony endangerment of a child.

The same applies if a person decides to leave a child under 15 at home alone. In Texas, if a child under 15 is left alone at home and some misfortune occurs, such as a fire, an accident or a crime, a person could find themselves facing criminal abandonment or endangerment charges.

Texas law defines felony child abandonment as leaving a child without providing reasonable and necessary care for the child – circumstances under which no reasonable, similarly situated adult would have left a child of that age and ability.

The Texas Penal Code states that a person commits an offense if, having custody, care, or control of a child under 15, they intentionally abandon the child in any place under circumstances that expose the child to an unreasonable risk of harm. So, driving recklessly, speeding or driving while intoxicated with children in the car can also lead to a charge of child endangerment, because the conduct creates a risk of harm to the child.

What Law Makes It Illegal Let a Child Stay in a Car Alone?

In Texas, the law that makes it illegal to leave a child in a car alone for more than 5 minutes is called “leaving a child in a vehicle.” This law makes it illegal for anyone to knowingly or intentionally leave a child in a motor vehicle for more than 5 minutes if the child is younger than 7 years old.

However, this does not mean that leaving a child over the age of 7 in a car is always legal. Other laws and child protective regulations in Texas make an adult caregiver responsible for the care of a child. Failure to provide adequate supervision can be a type of neglect, or “neglectful supervision” in the terms of Texas law. Neglectful supervision means placing a child in or failing to remove a child from a situation that a reasonable person would realize requires the judgment of an adult and that results in bodily injury or the substantial risk of immediate harm to the child.

Notice that the definition of neglectful supervision includes leaving a child in a situation where there is “substantial risk” of harm. This suggests that a person could be charged with a crime if they leave a child in a situation where there is only a risk of harm; the child would not have to be harmed in fact. So a person who is thinking of leaving a child in a car, or alone in any other kind of situation, must seriously consider if this creates a risk of immediate harm.

Does It Matter How Old the Minor Is?

Yes, the age of the child does matter. The law only applies to the act of leaving a minor who is younger than 7 years old in a car for more than 5 minutes. However, if a person were to leave a child older than 7 in a car alone and the child were to be harmed or injured in some way, whether by heat or by some other accident or misfortune, a person could be charged with felony child abandonment or child endangerment.

What If I Leave My Children in My Vehicle and One of the Children Is Older?

Texas law does allow a minor over the age of 14 to remain in the vehicle with a minor younger than 7 years old. Therefore, if a person were to leave a 16-year-old and a 4-year-old in a vehicle without an adult, the person could not be charged with leaving a child under the age of 7 in a vehicle. However, again, if something were to go wrong and either or both children were to be harmed, criminal charges for abandonment or endangerment might come into play. A person would want to think carefully about the situation and assess whether it is truly safe to leave children in the car or anywhere else, for that matter.

What Is the Punishment for a Conviction of Leaving a Child in a Vehicle?

Leaving a child under the age of 7 alone in a car for more than 5 minutes is a Class C misdemeanor. If a person is convicted of this crime, they may be sentenced to pay a $500 fine. Again, this assumes that the child survives without injury or harm.

There are different degrees to the offense of felony abandonment or endangerment, depending on the facts and circumstances of the case

If a person abandons a child while intending to return, it is a felony punishable by a term of imprisonment in state jail of from six months to 2 years in a state jail facility and a fine up to $10,000.

If a person abandons a child and does not intend to return, it is a third-degree felony punishable by a term of imprisonment of from 2 to 10 years and a fine of up to $10,000.

If a person abandons a child under circumstances that a reasonable person would believe would place the child in imminent danger of death, bodily injury, or physical or mental impairment, it is a second degree felony punishable by a term of imprisonment of from 2 to 20 years and a fine of up to $10,000.

Should I Discuss My Leaving a Child in a Car Charge with an Attorney?

Not only will a charge for leaving your child alone in a car leave you facing a fine, but you may also risk being investigated by Texas Child Protective Services and possibly having your children taken away from you.

If you have been charged with leaving your child alone in a car or with child abandonment or endangerment, you should discuss your situation with an experienced Texas criminal defense attorney. Your lawyer will be able to analyze the facts of your case and give you advice as to the best way forward for you.