The state of California has stringent laws that protect children from any kind of abuse or danger. According to PEN 273a, a person is prohibited from placing a child in a situation that can potentially harm them, even if they may not be harmed. Child endangerment is sometimes referred to as child abuse, but they are not the same. In child abuse cases, the minor will face danger and possibly sustain injuries. In child endangerment, it is the exposure of a child to a risk that is punishable by law.
Various situations can lead to a person being prosecuted for child endangerment, even when the person had no control of the circumstances, or out of miscommunication. Thus, you need to get an experienced defense lawyer who will defend you against these allegations. Our lawyers at the California Criminal Lawyer Group are aggressive yet compassionate in defending people who are facing criminal charges. We are ready to help you build a good defense strategy for your case.
Definition of Child Endangerment under PEN 273a and Elements of the Crime
To best understand how child endangerment is defined under Penal Code 273, we need to look at the elements of the crime. These are:
- The prosecution must show that:
- You willfully allowed a minor to be subjected to mental suffering and physical pain by another person
- You willfully and directly inflicted the minor with unjustified mental suffering or physical pain
- While the child was under your care, you willingly subjected the health of the child to danger, or the child got injured
- While the child was in your care, you willfully allowed the child to be put in a dangerous situation to their health or wellbeing
- You were negligent by causing or allowing the minor to suffer injuries or be placed in a dangerous situation
- You are the parent or legal guardian to the child and were not disciplining the minor reasonably
If the state can prove the above elements, you will be convicted of the offense and face severe penalties for violating the law.
Violating PEN 273a can be prosecuted as a misdemeanor or a felony. To make this offense a wobbler, the prosecutor must prove one other element to be true. In this case, the state must prove that the defendant placed the minor in a situation that would result in great bodily injury or death.
The law does not require the child to have suffered these injuries for you to be charged with the offense. However, if this was a possible outcome of these injuries, it is enough for the offense to be a wobbler.
According to the law, any act done willfully is carried out intentionally or purposely. By this definition, one doesn't need to have had the intention to inflict harm or violate the law. The defendant must have intentionally committed the act that may have caused harm.
For instance, if you have a child and every time you go to work, you leave him with your regular babysitter. You notice that every time you come back, the child has bruises that he doesn’t get with you. You ignore this and continue to leave the child with the babysitter because you have to work.
If you know the child is exposed to danger with your babysitter and continue to leave him with her, then you are willfully exposing the child to danger. Because of this, you will face charges of child endangerment, even when it is not you that directly inflicted the injuries to the child.
Unjustified Mental Suffering and Physical Pain
When a child is exposed to unjustifiable pain physically or mentally, it means the pain was unnecessary and excessive based on the circumstances.
When a person is said to have acted in criminal negligence, it means they exceeded what is considered as ordinary carelessness or keenness in judgment. You will be said to have acted with this type of negligence when:
- You act recklessly in significant contrast to how a usually careful individual would act under similar circumstances
- Your actions show disregard for life or show your lack of care for the repercussions of your actions
- An ordinarily mindful person would know that such behavior would automatically or can result in injuries against others.
A person’s behavior will be described as criminal negligence when very aggravated, reckless, or gross that it is beyond common sense. When the jury is listening to the allegations, they are on the lookout for whether a normally reasonable person facing similar circumstances would behave similarly.
For instance, your child is riding a bicycle, and you notice a fast-moving vehicle that is driving towards him. You run and push him out of the way of the oncoming vehicle but cause the child to suffer an injury in the process. If you are accused of endangering your child, the jury will look at the circumstances and determine if any ordinary parents would do the same. In this case, you will not be found guilty of child endangerment.
On the other hand, a father takes his underage son camping and decides to engage in Russian roulette with them. He goes ahead and hands a loaded firearm to his son, who accidentally pulls the trigger and kills himself. This behavior amounts to the criminal negligence of giving a loaded gun to a child, even when you had no intention to cause harm with the action.
Defining Great Bodily Injury Under the Law
According to California law, great bodily injury occurs when a person sustains substantial or significant injuries, but not minor ones. When you are charged with child endangerment causing great bodily injury, the jury will analyze the injuries inflicted and decide if they qualify as such or are moderate.
However, according to this statute, the child does not have to suffer great bodily injury for one to be convicted. If a child is placed where they can sustain these types of injuries, you are likely to be convicted. If you are facing child endangerment charges where the prosecutor feels the circumstances may have led to significant injuries, you will be prosecuted on felony charges.
Penalties for Child Endangerment under PEN 273a
The penalties for a person charged with child endangerment may vary significantly. The penalties typically are based on whether the actions by the defendant would have put the minor at great risks, such as risk to their health or death. As earlier stated, the offense can be prosecuted as either a misdemeanor or a felony. This is usually depending on the facts of the case.
When the prosecutor charges you on misdemeanor violations, it means your actions would not have resulted in significant risk to the child’s wellbeing. If you get convicted on misdemeanor charges of child endangerment, the penalties you are likely to face will include:
- Facing a county jail sentence of six months or less
- Being ordered to pay fines totaling to $1,000 or less in addition to the jail sentence or instead of it
- Being ordered to summary or misdemeanor probation with conditions
Misdemeanor Probation in Child Endangerment
If you are sentenced to misdemeanor probation for child endangerment in California, the minimum time you will face is four years. The judge is not allowed by the law to sentence you to a shorter probation period for this offense. The probation is usually accompanied by certain conditions that will include:
- A restraining order will be issued against you to protect the minor from more violent acts from you. The order, in some cases, may have a provision to stay away, which prohibits you from having any contact or relationship with the minor. Sometimes, the order for staying away may include the home even when the minor and the defendant share the residence.
- You will be ordered to attend and complete a program on child abuse and counseling that will last for a year. This program, however, must be approved by the court, and not any program you may choose.
- The probation may also include other additional conditions. For instance, if the perpetrator, while committing the offense, was intoxicated by either drugs or alcohol, they may be ordered to stay away from the substances. The defendant may also be subjected to random testing to check if they are abusing drugs while on probation. These special conditions are only for the period the defendant is on probation for the offense.
Waiving, Terminating, or Expunging the Probation Conditions
Some conditions for probation may be very harsh, such that they may not serve the interests of the minor or of justice. These can be reviewed and adjusted if found necessary. The court can also issue a termination of the probation earlier than the sentence previously stated. This is only when the defendant shows to have complied with the conditions and terms of the probation successfully. However, the defendant must have served and completed at least a year or more of the probation period.
After successful completion of probation, the defendant can get the conviction expunged from their record. The perpetrator, through their lawyer, can apply or petition the judge to expunge their record. The decision to expunge the defendant’s record is solely left to the judge. This means there is no guarantee that you will receive it.
The judge can decide to deny your expungement petition if:
- You violated any probation conditions
- You failed in keeping with all the probation requirements and conditions.
Felony Penalties for Child Endangerment
As earlier stated, child endangerment offense can be charged as a felony if there existed a risk for the child to suffer significant injuries on their body or death. When a prosecutor is deciding on how to prosecute the case, he or she considers the facts of the offense. Additionally, the criminal background of the defendant is also taken into consideration.
If you get convicted on felony charges, the penalties are harsher than those of a misdemeanor conviction. These penalties may include:
- Being sentenced to state imprisonment for two or four or six years
- Being ordered to pay a fine of $10,000 or less in addition to the jail sentence or instead of it.
The judge may decide to sentence the perpetrator to formal probation that carries similar conditions as those of misdemeanor probation. If you have been sentenced to formal probation, upon its successful completion, you also have the right to petition for expungement of your record. The decision to grant the expungement, just like in misdemeanor probation, is also left to the judge.
Sentence Enhancement in Child Endangerment
Aside from the felony penalties discussed above, you may have your sentence enhanced. If the minor sustained significant injuries due to your negligence, your penalties may be made harsher than the ordinary ones.
Some of the sentence enhancements may result in serving an additional prison sentence served consecutively with the ordinary one. Some of the circumstances that will result in the enhancement of the sentence include:
- If you were directly responsible for inflicting significant injuries to the child. This will earn you an additional three to six years of imprisonment based on the age of the child, and their type of injuries. These extra years are usually served consecutively with the standard imprisonment sentence issued.
- If, because of your negligence, the minor succumbed to death, you will be faced with more prison time of four years that is served consecutively.
Murder or Manslaughter Penalties
In some cases, a child may be exposed to dangerous situations that may result in their death. In such cases, the prosecutor may decide to charge the defendant with more serious offenses such as:
- Involuntary manslaughter according to PEN 192b
- PEN 192a Voluntary manslaughter
- PEN 18 Second-degree murder
The Three Strikes Law and Child Endangerment in California
If you are faced with felony charges for child endangerment, a conviction may earn you a strike according to the three-strikes law. If you receive a strike in your record, any subsequent felony charge you will be convicted of will automatically be a second strike. A strike, in this case, will mean you will receive twice the amount of penalties you would otherwise have received on the same offense.
If you are charged with another felony offense that you get convicted of, you will automatically earn a third strike. With three strikes in your record, the minimum jail sentence you would serve is 25 years and a maximum of life imprisonment.
Possible Legal Defenses when Faced with Child Endangerment Charges
With regard to the above-discussed penalties, if found guilty of child endangerment, when charged with violating this offense, you cannot leave it to chance that you may be acquitted. Getting an experienced defense attorney is the best thing for you not only to avoid wrongful convictions but also harsh penalties.
Your attorney typically has your best interests in place and, as such, will carry out all the necessary investigations and come up with various defenses that will work in your favor. Some of the legally acceptable defenses include:
The Act You are Accused of Was not Willful, Neither Was it Out of Criminal Negligence
One of the elements of the crime that the prosecutor is required to prove is that you acted willingly, and your actions amounted to criminal negligence. Your experienced lawyer can come up with various ways to create doubt in the prosecutor’s evidence that may result in an acquittal of the charges.
For instance, your lawyer can show that the injuries sustained by the child were obtained through an accident and may have been out of standard negligence. If the jury accepts this argument, you will not be found guilty of violating PEN 273a.
Your Actions were Based on Reasonable Disciplining of your Child
A parent is allowed to discipline a child in California as long as their actions are within reason. A parent is permitted by the law to inflict corporal or physical punishment on their child. Some of the actions a parent may take include:
- Spanking the child
- Using a paddle or a belt to discipline the child
- Having the child go to sleep without dinner
- Confining the child to stay in their room.
Your experienced defense lawyer can gather facts that will help convince the court that you were reasonably disciplining your child.
Because the offense is not always built on physical evidence but the possibility of danger, many people find themselves falsely accused of this offense. Sometimes, a child can be manipulated to make false allegations against one parent by the other. This is common in custody cases where the parents are fighting over who will have legal custody over the child.
Divorce can be hard on a child. This can result in a child acting up and wanting to punish one parent if they blame them for the divorce or another partner to the parent is introduced. Other times, a person charged with taking care of the minor can raise false allegations to cover their mistakes or abuse.
Irrespective of why a person will make false accusations, you will still face the consequences if found guilty. The police will also not risk having a child in danger, and for any allegations that they will receive, the alleged perpetrator will be arrested and charged with the offense.
When you are faced with child endangerment allegations, your lawyer will evaluate the evidence gathered against you to see what can show your innocence. Your lawyer will also talk with the potential witnesses to the incident. Additionally, the people that know you, such as family, friends, or colleagues, will also be interviewed to ascertain your character.
Some allegations may have your lawyer look at other potential suspects by investigating their criminal background and any additional information that may be necessary. The social media platforms belonging to the child or other suspects will also be investigated to find evidence that the allegations are false.
Whatever is found under these investigations and favors your case, your lawyer will present it in court to help you get acquitted of allegations.
Mistake of Fact
An individual meaning well may also accuse you of child endangerment when they misinterpret the circumstances. This is what is referred to as a mistake of fact in California law.
California has put a mandatory law to report suspected cases of child endangerment to the authorities. Under this requirement, some professionals are legally expected to report such cases if suspected. These include teachers, doctors, or members of the clergy.
If any person falling under that category fails to report a suspected case of child endangerment, they risk a misdemeanor charge that may result in jail time. This puts them consistently under pressure to make reports of any situation without facts to avoid facing charges themselves.
Another Person Put the Child in Danger
Sometimes, the prosecutors and police want to have someone take responsibility for the injuries a child may have. Although some may be acting in good faith trying to protect the child from danger, sometimes they jump into wrong conclusions on who is liable for the injuries.
For instance, a doctor treating a child for bruises may suspect the parent caused them even when the child tells them they were injured playing. The parent also believes the child was injured playing, but the doctor feels obligated to report to the authorities about the suspected endangerment. The police without question will arrest the parents on suspicion of committing the offense. The parent’s lawyer finds out that the child was bullied in school, and he or she sustained the injuries as a result. When this evidence is presented to the police or prosecutor, the allegations against the parent will be dropped.
Find a San Jose Criminal Defense Lawyer Near Me
Allegations of child endangerment are severe and can deny the accused person access to their child, in addition to other consequences. It is crucial to avoid the repercussions of the allegations, especially when one is falsely accused of the offense, either through misunderstanding or malice. Our experienced criminal attorneys at the San Jose Criminal Attorney Law Firm can defend you if you are facing charges of child endangerment. Note that the state prosecutors treat any crime against children seriously, so you should get in touch with an attorney as soon as possible, even if you know the allegations are false. Call us at 408-622-0204 to get our legal help.