This summer has seen a high number of cases involving young children dying after being left in hot cars. In a recent highly publicized case out Georgia, a father was charged with the involuntary manslaughter of his twin one-and-a-half-year-old daughters after it was discovered that he left the children in a car outside their home for hours while he was napping. In this case, involving Justin Rose out of Georgia, CNN reported that the issue for the jury will be whether this was a mistake or murder. The defense recently had a judge allow a motion for change of venue based on pretrial publicity.
However, in a case out of Mississippi a grand jury declined to indict a woman whose two-year-old daughter died after being left in a car all day.
Courts across the country are grappling with how to treat these parents or guardians. Are they guilty of involuntary manslaughter or are these cases just tragic accidents?
In Massachusetts, to prove a case of involuntary manslaughter, the evidence must show that defendant caused victim’s death, that they intended the conduct that caused the death and that the defendant’s conduct was wanton or reckless. Most states have similar statutes criminalizing reckless intentional acts that lead to the death of another. The part of these statutes that is difficult to prove in hot car cases is the intent requirement. Involuntary manslaughter is a general intent crime, meaning that the defendant must only have intended the reckless act, not the death. So, in cases where a child dies after being left in a hot car the courts look to see if the guardian intended to leave the child in the car even if their intent was not to harm the child.
To determine whether or not leaving the child in the car is intentional courts and prosecutors look at the actions of the parent prior to and during the time the child is left in the car. For example, in Illinois, the court held that evidence that the mother “cracked the windows” tended to show that the children were intentionally left in the car. People v. Kolzow, 301 Ill. App. 3d 1 (1998). In the Mississippi case mentioned above, the grand jury failed to indict because there was credible evidence that the incident was a tragic accident; the mother believed she had dropped her daughter off at daycare and actually returned to pick the child up, when she was told the child was not dropped off that day she rushed out to find her child had passed away and was still in the car seat in her car.
Courts have also considered the actions of the parent following the discovery of a child in a hot car. For example, in Ohio, the appeals court upheld the conviction of a father who accidently left his child in a hot car, because the father failed to seek prompt medical care when he became aware of the child’s condition. The court considered the father’s decision to not seek immediate medical care to be reckless. They acknowledged that leaving the child in the car was an accident but that his intentional act or failure to act with regards to the medical care amounted to involuntary manslaughter.
Another important issue when examining cases of hot car deaths is the widely varied prosecution and sentencing of those accused. In Georgia, a father is currently on trial for murder and faces life in prison after leaving his son to die in a hot car. Meanwhile, a Connecticut father was allowed to accept a deal to stay out of jail after his 15-month old son died after being left in the car while he went to work. Some argue that the varied treatment of these cases is due to race or sex, with some studies showing that women are more likely to receive higher sentences. However, other evidence suggests that the underlying facts in each case are determinative. For example, cases where there is evidence of past abuse or neglect or where there is evidence that the parents were using alcohol or drugs, seem to be prosecuted more vigorously with longer sentences imposed.
Massachusetts does not have any case law on the subject so it is difficult to determine how a hot car case would be handled here. As of now 19 states have laws making it illegal to leave your child in the car unattended, Massachusetts is not one of those states. There is case law to support the notion that Massachusetts would consider leaving a child in the care to be negligent but it is not clear if they would hold it to be wanton or reckless without additional aggravating factors.
Attorney Michael DelSignore handles Criminal Charges throughout Massachusetts and writes frequently on major criminal cases throughout the United States on this Blog. Keep current on Criminal law topics by following us on Facebook.