Authorities in California work hard to punish crimes against children, and child endangerment is no exception.
The law is very broad and a bit confusing in child endangerment cases. Child endangerment is often confused with the crime of child abuse, which punishes cases of physical abuse or harm to a child. Child endangerment is simply the act of allowing a child to be exposed to pain, suffering or danger.
Because of this, child endangerment is often charged against well-meaning, innocent people. Normally law-abiding parents or guardians might be involved in a simple misunderstanding or mistake, and now, they’ve found themselves dealing with the criminal justice system.
If you or someone you love has been accused of child endangerment, an attorney can help you navigate these charges against you.
What is child endangerment?
In order to convict a person of a crime, a prosecutor must convince a jury that certain facts in the case were true. These are known as the “elements of the crime.”
Under California Penal Code 273a PC, child endangerment has three elements:
- You did one of the following:
- Willfully inflicted unjustifiable physical pain or mental suffering on a child. The law defines “unjustifiable” as not reasonably necessary, or “excessive under the circumstances.”
- Willfully caused or permitted a child to suffer unjustifiable physical pain or mental suffering on a child.
- While having care or custody of child, willfully caused or permitted or caused a child’s person or health to be injured.
- While having care or custody of child, willfully caused or permitted the child to be placed in a position where the child’s person or health was in danger.
- You were criminally negligent when you allowed the child to suffer. Criminal negligence is acting in a way that is a “gross departure” from the way a careful person would act, in disregard for human life or the consequences of your actions, which a reasonable person would understand would result in harm to others.
- If you were the child’s parent, you were not reasonably disciplining the child. Despite what many may think, corporal punishment is legal in California. This includes spanking, confinement or sending a child to their room without a meal.
As you might’ve noticed, this law is open to a wide range of interpretations. What is an allowable amount of corporal punishment, what if the child understood the punishment as not particularly bad, and what happens if the child is accidentally injured?
It depends on the specific facts and evidence of your case, particularly when determining if you engaged in gross negligence or allowed unjustifiable pain. An attorney who is experienced in child endangerment cases can help you here.
Penalties for child endangerment in California
Child endangerment is a “wobbler.” This means that it can be charged as either a felony or misdemeanor, depending on the facts of the case.
If the prosecutor believes that your behavior did not create a risk of “great bodily injury” or death, you will be charged with misdemeanor child endangerment. It is punishable by:
- Up to six months in county jail
- Fines of up to $1,000
In misdemeanor cases, the judge also has the option to sentence defendants to misdemeanor probation instead of any jail time. The minimum period of probation is four years.
In felony cases, the prosecution believes that your actions created a risk of great bodily injury or death. Great bodily injury is defined as “any significant or substantial injury” and it is judged on a case-by-case basis. As a felony, child endangerment is punishable by:
- Up to six years in California state prison
- At least four years of felony probation
- Fines of up to $10,000
In felony child endangerment cases where the child sustained great bodily injury, the prosecutor can seek a “sentencing enhancement” that can add:
- An additional three to six years in prison if the defendant actually and personally inflicted great bodily injury on the victim.
- Another four years in prison if the victim died.
In some cases, a felony child endangerment conviction can result in a strike on your record under California’s “three strikes” law.
Defenses against child endangerment charges
“Robert Helfend is one of the best criminal defense attorneys I’ve ever worked with. He was so knowledgeable, and always made sure I understood everything every step of the way. I would definitely recommend him to anyone who wants an understanding, caring, and truly helpful lawyer.” Pat, CA
As we mentioned above, California’s child endangerment laws are vaguely written and very broad. This allows overzealous prosecutors to charge normally law-abiding citizens with crimes.
However, in order to convict someone of child endangerment, the prosecutor still must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant’s willful actions led to the situation of endangerment. Mistakes of fact are so common in situations like these, particularly when the parent was engaged in legally disciplining the child.
An experienced criminal defense attorney will work through the facts of your case to pick apart the prosecution’s case and see your charges reduced or dropped entirely.
Attorney Robert M. Helfend is a SuperLawyers and National Trial Lawyers Top 100 rated attorney who has practiced in the Los Angeles area since 1984, and he is prepared to take your case. Call today for your free case evaluation – 800-834-6434.