Angiulo: The Difference Between Bad Parenting & Criminal Acts
Monday, March 07, 2016
Our society has chosen to punish people who make decisions that place their children in danger. This legislative decision is reflected in MGL c. 265, §13L and is a statute punishing wanton or reckless behavior by a parent. If that behavior creates a substantial risk of serious bodily injury or sexual abuse of a child, and the parent fails to take reasonable steps to alleviate such risk when they have a duty to do so, then the parent can be punished with jail time. What this law seems to say is that, somewhere, there is a line between doing things another parent wouldn't and placing your child in real risk of harm.
A recent case from the Supreme Judicial Court, Commonwealth v. Coggeshall, explores the dimensions of this issue. In the case, the defendant was found by officers while intoxicated and trespassing on railroad tracks. To make matters worse, he was walking with his son and fell over between the tracks. The accusation by the Commonwealth was that being in a dangerous area, and intoxicated with his son, placed the child in substantial risk of serious bodily injury.
People might wonder what comes next. Since police saw what they deemed to be criminal behavior, they placed the defendant under arrest and charged him with a violation of 13L. The question in Coggeshall was whether, or not, this evidence was enough for a person to be charged. Importantly, there is a difference between what it takes to issue charges and what is proof beyond a reasonable doubt, which is required for conviction. In order for a complaint to issue, the police must only have probable cause or evidence tending to show it is more likely than not that the crime occurred. Conviction, and proof beyond a reasonable doubt, is a much higher standard.
The court, in Coggeshall, could not decide guilt or innocence, but could decide what the language of 13L means. In their opinion, the justices explained that the “wanton and reckless” conduct language from the statute was more than just doing what an ordinary person would not. This law was written in a specific way and places a heightened burden on the commonwealth to prove at trial that the defendant knew what he was doing was wrong.
This means that the government must show that a parent was both aware of and conciously disregarded a risk to their child's safety in order for a person to be guilty. Of course, the government doesn't need enough evidence to convict you to issue charges. What this means is that the Supreme Judicial Court had to decide whether a trial court should permit a case to be dismissed. As a result of the Coggeshall decision, the defendant's pretrial motion to dismiss was denied and the case was permitted to go to trial.
Parenting is hard and the idea of being arrested because your kid doesn't eat enough vegetables only makes it harder. The Coggeshall case should bring some relief to all those people trying hard because it makes one thing clear: criminal parenting requires more than simple negligence. It requires real danger and a disregard of that risk of harm.
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