Few allegations are as damaging to your reputation as child abuse or endangerment. Many times they have absolutely no basis in fact and are merely the product of a contentious custody dispute or an overzealous educator or therapist.
San Diego law enforcement officials take such allegations very seriously, however, and prosecutors are under intense political pressure to aggressively prosecute allegations regarding crimes against children, which means that they are much more prone to a rush to judgment.
As a former California prosecutor who has handled thousands of cases, I have an insider’s view of prosecutorial strategies—which I now use to defend my clients’ rights and reputations. I’ve helped many people just like you facing unsupported or trumped up charges of child abuse and child endangerment.
Below is what you need to know about the charges, potential consequences if you’re convicted and defense strategies that may be successful in your case. If you have questions after reading this, get in touch for a free consultation so I can review your case and give you my opinion on your legal options.
What the Law Says
Child endangerment charges under Penal Code Section 273a can be one of the most difficult child abuse-type offenses to deal with because the prosecutor can initiate charges for this offense even when NO harm has come to a child. The offense simply involves placing a child in a hazardous situation or allowing the child to be in a hazardous situation without taking appropriate safeguards to protect him or her. Because the child need not suffer any harm, many innocent, law-abiding folks find themselves facing these serious charges.
While there is a long list of actions that may constitute child endangerment, it may be sufficient that you intentionally put a child in a position in which the child might suffer “unjustifiable” physical or mental pain. You need not have intended to expose your child to potential injury or intended to violate the law; it’s enough that you intended to put the child in the position where harm could occur. (“Unjustifiable” basically means that the statute is not intended to prohibit reasonable corporal punishment, like an open-handed swat on the butt that does not leave a mark.)
By way of example, parents often leave their child with a caregiver, such as a significant other or babysitter; you may be charged with child endangerment if the caregiver has a history of substance abuse, alcoholism, past physical abuse or neglect. You can be charged even if your child is not injured in any way.
The offense is based on the child being placed in a situation where you should have known there was a potential for the unjustifiable infliction of pain—actual infliction of pain is not necessary. While a simple open-handed swat on the butt is usually not an issue, more force than is reasonably necessary may create problems. Similarly, locking a child in an attic without nutrition or hydration for several days would also likely result in charges.
Consequences of Conviction
Because child endangerment is a “wobbler,” it may be charged as a misdemeanor or felony. The degree of potential physical harm typically determines how the offense is charged. If the child is exposed to a risk of “great bodily harm” (i.e., serious injury), San Diego prosecutors will usually charge the offense as a felony.
Many times, however, prosecutors charge the offense as a felony simply to intimidate you into accepting a less-than-advantageous plea agreement. This practice of “overcharging” is common. I can and will analyze your situation and let you know if you have been overcharged.
A conviction of child endangerment may result in penalties of up to 1 year in county jail for a misdemeanor and 6 years in state prison for a felony. Other sanctions include substantial fines, completion of a child abuse treatment program, restraining orders and a strike under the California Three Strikes Law if you’re convicted of a felony offense.
While child endangerment charges are very serious, I may employ a variety of effective defense strategies to seek dismissal of the charges or acquittal following trial. Even when these case dispositions are unrealistic, we can often use the specter of these defenses to obtain a favorable plea agreement to have the charges reduced from a felony to misdemeanor or to obtain alternative sentencing rather than jail time.
Some of the defenses I may utilize include:
- No willful (intentional) act: While you don’t have to intend harm to your child to violate the law, you do have to intend to place your child into the situation that is unreasonably unsafe. If your significant other were to pick your child up from school without your knowledge or consent, then we might argue a lack of willful or intentional act.
- Not gross negligence: Though all that is required is “negligent” decision-making or action to constitute a violation, criminal negligence is different than in a civil lawsuit. The prosecutor must establish that your conduct meets the high standard of gross negligence that shows a conscious disregard for human life. Most parents exercise less than perfect judgment at times, but not all parenting mistakes constitute a conscious disregard for human life.
- Right to discipline your child: Legitimate corporal punishment is not only lawful, but your right as a parent. We may seek to persuade a judge or jury that the discipline was appropriate under the circumstances.
- Trumped up allegations: Many times this type of charge is based on allegations that are simply not founded on facts. We carefully investigate the nature and circumstances of the allegations so that we can expose those allegations that are without merit. I frequently use skilled investigators to uncover exculpatory evidence and unmask improper motivations that often lie at the heart of these cases.
What the Law Says
While parents have a right to use reasonable physical discipline with a child, the intentional/willful infliction of an injury may be the basis for child abuse charges for inflicting corporal injury under Penal Code Section 273d. “Intentional” merely means that you intended the act, not that you meant to hurt a child. There is no requirement that the injury be serious (a mere bruise or scratch may be sufficient for a prosecutor to bring charges). If your child does suffer serious injury, you may face felony charges.
A wide range of actions may constitute a basis for child abuse charges, including:
- Tossing an object at a child
The language of the statute for this offense is very misleading because it uses extreme-sounding language like “cruel and inhumane punishment” and “traumatic condition.” In reality, an incident in which a child bruises a tailbone when falling after being shoved by a parent may be sufficient for a prosecutor to file child abuse charges, though it would likely not necessarily be sufficient for a conviction.
Child abuse charges are particularly challenging because rules of evidence that usually protect others charged with criminal offenses do not apply when you’re charged with child abuse. Generally, the law prohibits the use of prior bad acts evidence to prove character traits. However, these protections don’t apply when you’re charged with child abuse, effectively turning the premise of innocent until proven guilty on its head.
The prosecutor may provide evidence not only of past convictions of child abuse, but even allegations that did not result in formal charges or a conviction. Under certain circumstances, the prosecutor may even be able to introduce prior evidence of domestic violence against an adult as evidence of violent tendencies.
It’s fundamentally unfair for a judge to allow this evidence, but California law makes exceptions that may permit it to be introduced. When a client engages me, I fight tenaciously to have this type of evidence excluded. I may challenge such evidence based on its probative value being outweighed by its unfair prejudice, its remoteness in time, and/or its lack of corroborating evidence.
Whether you’re facing formal charges or are merely under investigation for child abuse or child endangerment, the earlier you get legal advice from an experienced and dedicated criminal defense lawyer, the better your chances of avoiding a conviction or other unfavorable result.
Many people now sitting in jail are there because they made the mistake of talking to the police or prosecutor without first obtaining legal advice. If you or someone you know is facing child abuse or child endangerment charges or allegations, never speak to the police before consulting with an attorney.
Whether you decide to engage me or not, you should understand your charges, the potential consequences of conviction and the legal options that may be available to you. If you have any questions, I invite you to contact me for a free consultation where we’ll go over these aspects of your case.