As parents or caregivers, child endangerment and abuse are cases we never want to face because of the emotional connections we have with children, especially as a parent. Since children are considered as vulnerable members of society, state prosecutors always treat cases involving children more vigorously, and they will always seek to have the highest possible punishments. But this doesn’t mean that you will always get convicted if you allegedly endangered a child’s life. With the help of LA Criminal Defense Attorney, your charges could be dismissed or the penalties reduced. Our attorneys offer criminal defense services throughout Los Angeles, California, and the neighboring cities.
Child Endangerment Law in California
Children are among the most vulnerable members of any society and deserve care and protection. As a result, the state of California is very strict when it comes to protecting children. Child endangerment is considered a serious charge that attracts severe penalties.
Under California Penal Code Section 273a (child endangerment law), it is unlawful for any person to willfully expose a minor to danger, suffering, or pain. Although sometimes known as child abuse, child endangerment should not be confused with California Penal Code Section 273d child abuse.
Elements of Child Endangerment
To be found guilty of violating child endangerment law in California, the prosecution must prove all of the following elements of the crime beyond any doubt:
- The accused:
- Willfully imposed unjustifiable mental suffering or physical pain to the minor,
- Willfully allowed or caused the minor to undergo unjustifiable mental suffering or physical pain,
- While taking care or having the child's custody, willfully allowed or caused the juvenile to be hurt, or
- While taking care or having the child's custody, willfully allowed or caused the minor to be in a place where the child or their health was threatened
- The accused was criminally negligent when they caused or allowed the minor to be injured, endangered or to suffer, and
- In case the defendant is the child's parent, they were not disciplining the minor in a reasonable manner.
Additional Element to Present Evidence for Felony Child Endangerment
For child endangerment offense to be considered a wobbler, the prosecution team must present evidence that you responded under circumstances that would cause severe bodily harm or death. It's not a must that your action resulted in injury or death.
Definition of Important Legal Terms
A behavior is considered willfully if it was done intentionally, deliberately or on purpose. That doesn't necessarily mean you intended to violate the California Penal Code Section 273a or cause harm. It means your behavior could lead to harm on purpose.
Unjustifiable mental suffering or physical pain
This term means suffering or pain that is too much or not necessary under the given circumstances.
The term criminal negligence goes beyond ordinary inattention, carelessness or fault in judgment. One is considered to have acted with criminal negligence when:
- They act in an irresponsible manner that is completely different from how a reasonable human being would act under the same circumstances
- The act amounts to indifference or lack of regard for life to the effects of the act
- A normal careful person knows that behaving in such a manner would probably harm others
In simple terms, an act is considered criminal negligence/ carelessness when it's very gross, reckless or aggravated such that it is in contradiction of common sense. The assessment is if a normal person under similar circumstances would do such an act.
Severe Bodily Injury
Severe bodily injury/ harm is any substantial or significant injury. That means minor, moderate or trivial injuries are not considered great bodily injuries.
The determination of the presence of severe bodily injury varies with different cases. Consequently, enthusiastic prosecutors will charge it every opportunity they get.
It is also important to understand the issue here isn't whether the minor actually sustained a wound. The main concern is if the minor was placed under circumstances that were likely to cause injury to them. Bearing that in mind, if the minor suffers severe bodily injury, the prosecutor will probably file a felony charge against you.
Penalties for Violating California Child Endangerment Law
Punishment, sentencing, and penalties for breaking child endangerment law vary mainly depending on whether your behavior caused severe bodily injury or death of the minor.
- Misdemeanor penalties
In case your actions did not cause severe bodily harm or death, the offense is considered a misdemeanor. It carries a fine of $1,000 and a maximum of a six-month sentence in county jail.
- Misdemeanor Probation (Summary probation)
The court can also sentence you to informal probation. Child endangerment charges are punishable by a minimum of four-year probation. The informal probation could also include:
- A restraining (protective) order that protects the victim from more violence. The order may also consist of a stay away order which forbids the accused from reaching the alleged victim. The stay-away order also applies to the minor's home whether it is the accused's residence or not
- Attending a court-ordered child abuser's counseling program for one year
- There are more conditions if you were drunk when you committed the crime. They include random drug testing and a court order to refrain from alcohol or drugs for the probation period.
Can any of the above probation conditions be waived, removed or dismissed?
The judge can waive probation terms and conditions if they realize the condition is not in the interest of justice. The judge could also issue an early termination of the informal probation ahead of schedule if you adhered to all probation terms and condition for one or two years.
Moreover, you can expunge a criminal record after you have successfully completed the probation period. Also known as a dismissal, an expungement is a type of post-conviction relief under California Penal Code section 1203.4 PC. It releases one from all restrictions and penalties as a result of the conviction.
However, the court can deny an expungement petition if you failed to comply with all probation conditions or you committed a probation violation.
- Felony Probation
Violating California Penal Code Section 273a is a wobbler as long as there was a danger of causing severe bodily injury or demise to the minor. The prosecutor can decide to charge it as a felony or a misdemeanor depending on your criminal history and the exact circumstances of the allegations.
A felony conviction is punishable by a two, four or six-year sentence in state prison or a maximum fine of $10,000.
The court can also sentence you to formal probation that exceeds four years. The conditions for felony probation are similar to summary probation conditions discussed above. A defendant sentenced to formal probation can also expunge their conviction as discussed above.
- Severe Body Injury Enhancement
Apart from the above-discussed felony penalties, you can get a sentencing enhancement if the minor is seriously injured due to your criminal carelessness. The enhancement can result in more and consecutive 3 to 6 years in state prison if you personally imposed severe bodily harm on the alleged victim. This depends on the type of injury and the child's age. It can also result in more and consecutive 4 years in California state prison if the child died due to your criminal negligence.
- Murder or Manslaughter Penalties
Sometimes, the prosecutor may decide to file a more severe charge when a minor dies due to endangerment. These charges include:
- Involuntary manslaughter
Violation of California Penal Code 192 (b) is a felony. It carries formal probation, a maximum fine of $10,000 and two, three or four years in jail. Also, involuntary manslaughter prompts a civil proceeding by the victim's family. If successful, you might face very serious civil judgments.
- Voluntary manslaughter
If convicted with voluntary manslaughter, you could face three (3), six (6) or eleven (11) years in state prison. It also attracts:
- A potential strike on your criminal record in accordance with California three strikes law,
- Performing community service,
- A fine of $10,000,
- Attending mandatory counseling sessions like anger management programs, and
- Any other condition deemed logically fit by the judge in relation to the case's circumstances
- Second-degree Murder (California Penal Code 187)
If convicted of California Penal Code 187, you could face fifteen years to life imprisonment in California state prison. However, the potential sentence can increase if you have a previous murder conviction; here, the second-degree murder sentence can become life imprisonment without parole. The sentence escalates to twenty to life if you shot the alleged victim out of a car with an intention to cause severe injuries.
- Three Strikes Law
According to California three strikes law, a felony conviction is considered a strike if the minor suffered severe bodily harm.
If you have a previous strike in your criminal record and then later charged with a felony, you become a second striker. This attracts a sentence term that is two times what it should be. And if you become a third striker, you serve a compulsory sentence of twenty-five years to life in state prison.
Legal Defenses to Penal Code Section 273a Charges
There are legal defenses used to fight California Penal Code Section 273a cases. They include law enforcement misconduct or failing to adhere to search and seizure. But then again there are other unique defenses that apply only to child neglect, abuse, and endangerment cases. They include:
Your behavior was not willful or cannot be considered as criminal negligence or carelessness
Like mentioned earlier, to convict you of violating California Penal Code Section 273a, the prosecution team should prove criminal negligence as an element of the crime.
There are several ways a competent criminal defense lawyer can present enough practical doubt for an innocent verdict. They could claim the injury/harm was due to ordinary negligence or an accident. If so, you didn't break California Penal Code Section 273a.
You were reasonably disciplining your child
Parents and guardians are allowed to discipline their children through realistic corporal punishment. In this context, corporal punishment is punishment exacted on the minor's body or in simple words, physical punishment. It could include asking a minor to sleep without taking food, confining a minor in their room, discipline the child using a paddle or belt, and spanking.
An attorney should be in a position to persuade the court that you were just realistically disciplining your child if that’s the case.
Most California Penal Code Section 273a cases start with false accusations. Sometimes a minor will make an allegation against you after being manipulated by your partner or ex-spouse or the minor is getting back at one parent during marriage dissolution or after one parent remarries. Your child's caretaker can also make such false accusations to cover their actions.
Whatever the root cause is, law enforcement officers don't want to be liable for ignoring child endangerment. Therefore, they may arrest whoever is accused.
When a good lawyer has a client alleged of violating California Penal Code Section 273a, they review all evidence that could prove the client's innocence. It includes interviewing all eyewitnesses and interviewing those in the accused's life to determine whether they are good parents or not.
Additionally, the lawyer can pull school records, criminal records, and employment records of any potentially liable person. They will also go through social media platforms of the alleged victim and any other evidence that would establish the child’s character.
Mistake of fact
Sometimes a child endangerment case can begin with a mistake of fact. It occurs when a good-hearted person misinterprets or gets the wrong impression about a situation and thinks it is child endangerment.
It is worsened by the compulsory reporting law that requires professionals like teachers, doctors, and the clergy to report any suspected child abuse and endangerment case to the relevant regulatory bodies. If they don't, they could be convicted with misdemeanor charges and even be jailed. They are, therefore, under pressure to raise an alarm whenever they have a suspicion, even without real evidence of whether the act is a form of abuse.
Related Crimes to Violation of California Penal Code 273a PC
Below are some of the common crimes charged alongside or in place of Penal Code 273a.
- Child Abuse (California Penal Code Section 273d PC)
Violation of California Penal Code Section 273d PC is considered a wobbler. If charged with a misdemeanor, you could face one year sentence in county jail and a maximum fine of $6,000. Felony child abuse charges, on the other hand, are punishable by a fine of $6,000 and a two, four or six years sentence in California state prison.
- Child Neglect
Under California Penal Code 270 PC, it is unlawful for a parent to neglect their child or fail to provide them with physical necessities. In this context, the term "necessities" means basic needs like food, clothing, medical care, and shelter. However, a parent cannot be charged with this offense if they can't afford these necessities.
Typically, child neglect is a misdemeanor and it is punishable as follows:
- A fine of up to $2,000, and
- A one year sentence in jail
In case of subsequent convictions, child neglect is considered a wobbler and the penalties include serving one year and one day in state prison.
- Lewd Acts with a Child (Penal Code Section 288 PC)
According to Penal Code Section 288 PC, it is unlawful to touch a child with sexual intent. The child must be under 14 years of age or is fourteen or fifteen years old and the age difference between the perpetrator and the minor is ten years.
Penalties for violating this law depend on:
- The alleged victim's age
- The age difference between the victim and the defendant
- Whether the accused was the minor's caregiver
Typically, this offense carries a sentence in California state prison and a maximum fine of $10,000.
- DUI with a Minor
California Penal Code Section 273a is charged alongside California DUI laws if you were put under arrest for driving while intoxicated and with a minor in the vehicle.
Alternatively, the prosecutor could charge driving under the influence with child endangerment sentencing enhancement. This enhancement adds your sentence to driving under the influence jail term, especially if you had previous DUI convictions.
Also, under Vehicle Code 27360 VC, drivers with children are obligated to use the following child restraint system:
- A child below two years should ride in a rear-facing car seat unless they exceed 40 pounds or are 40 inches tall
- A child below eight years of age should be seated in a booster or car seat in a vehicle's rear
- Giving Deadly Fireworks to a Child
It is illegal to sell, deliver or give deadly fireworks like huge sparklers and rockets to a person below eighteen years of age.
Violation of this law is a misdemeanor offense. It is punishable by a fine that ranges between $500 and $1,000 and a maximum of one year sentence in county jail.
- Penal Code 273ab PC (Child Abuse leading to the death of a minor under eight years of age)
California Penal Code 273ab PC is charged when:
- You were the primary caregiver and have the custody of age below 8 years
- You assaulted the minor by means that would likely result in severe bodily harm
- The minor became comatose, paralyzed or died due to such injuries
This offense is punishable by twenty-five years to life imprisonment in state prison.
Understanding the Difference Between Child Endangerment and Child Abuse
The simplest way to understand the difference between the two laws is by looking at their elements. It is illegal under child abuse law to physically abuse a child. Parents, guardians and primary caregivers are given an alternative way of disciplining the minors through spanking but they should not injure their child. Any physical injury forms the basis of the charge.
Different from child abuse, child endangerment does not need some form of physical injury. To be convicted, the prosecutor must prove the above-discussed elements of the crime.
Does Child Endangerment Affect Child Custody?
Children are dependent on their parents for literally everything. If you cannot protect your child from danger, then the court might believe that you're irresponsible. Even a single child endangerment instance is enough for the court to see you unsuitable to be a parent. In such cases, the court decides what is best for the minor based on the information it has about the parent.
Undeniably, child endangerment does not always make one an irresponsible parent. You could be a victim of circumstances. Although the jury might put the circumstances surrounding your charges into consideration, the judge could still deprive you of child custody rights. It also depends on the judge, your attorney and the capability of the other parent.
If the judge believes the endangerment charges are less serious, they may:
- Revise your child visitation hours
- Only permit you to have supervised visitation
- Stop you from receiving overnight visits from your child
What are the Bail Amounts for Violating California Penal Code Section 273a?
Each county in California has its bail amount for offenses that fall under its jurisdiction. Every county also has a bail schedule that gives you a clue of what you could be charged with. However, there is no correct predictor of what the bail amount could be. This is because factors like the seriousness of the injury, the defendant's criminal history, and the likelihood of the defendant to flee are considered when determining the amount. If you are being charged with a crime feel free to contact our Los Angeles Criminal Defense Lawyer for a free consultation.