Child Endangerment Defense Attorneys in Orange County
Penal Code 273a – Child Endangerment
Child endangerment, or 273a PC, is a crime of domestic violence directed against children.
While the crime can be committed against any child, most Orange County and Riverside prosecutions involve:
- A child or stepchild of the accused,
- A child living in the accused’s home, or
- The child of a person the accused is dating.
California’s child endangerment law encompasses, but is broader than, the traditional crime of child abuse. An allegation of child endangerment can be made even if the child is never harmed. Exposing a child to a significant risk of harm may be sufficient to trigger a child endangerment prosecution.
Our attorneys assist individuals accused of child endangerment across Southern California. We provide experienced representation to persons charged with offenses against children in all California courts, including Orange County, Los Angeles County, San Diego County, and Riverside County.
Child Endangerment Defined
Conduct considered endangerment of a child appears in PC 273a. That statute provides 4 separate definitions of child endangerment.
To obtain a conviction, the prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused did one of the following:
- Willfully inflicted unjustifiable physical pain or mental suffering on a child.
- Willfully caused or permitted a child to suffer unjustifiable physical pain or mental suffering and was criminally negligent in doing so.
- Willfully caused or permitted a child or a child’s health to be injured while the accused had care or custody of the child and was criminally negligent in doing so.
- Willfully caused or permitted the child to be placed in a situation where the child’s person or health was endangered while the accused had care or custody of the child and was criminally negligent in doing so.
Level of Child Endangerment Charges
In California, child endangerment can be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony. What distinguishes the offenses is the likely outcome of the accused’s actions on the child.
Misdemeanor Child Endangerment
A person may be charged with misdemeanor child endangerment if their willful actions or inactions were done under circumstances that would be unlikely to result in great bodily harm or death to the child.
Felony Child Endangerment
A felony child endangerment charge arises when the accused’s willful conduct, or lack thereof, were engaged in under circumstances that would put the child at risk of great bodily harm or death.
Technically, in this situation, child endangerment is a “wobbler.” That means the offense may be charged as either a felony or a misdemeanor. The prosecutor has the discretion to determine which level to impose. Their decision will be based on the facts of the case.
Defining Great Bodily Harm
The difference between a misdemeanor and felony child endangerment charge lies in whether the child would have likely suffered death or great bodily harm. Under California Penal Code 12022.7(f), “great bodily harm” is “a significant or substantial injury.”
Also, note that the minor does not have to actually suffer great bodily harm or death for a felony charge to be levied. The child endangerment law specifically provides that a felony occurs in situations “likely to produce” such a result. In contrast, misdemeanor offenses happen in circumstances “other than those likely to produce” significant injury to the child.
Child Endangerment Defenses
Each alternative definition of child endangerment requires proof of specific facts. Defenses are centered on the prosecution’s inability to prove those facts beyond a reasonable doubt.
Defenses can be mounted based on the elements of the offense:
Each alternative requires proof that the accused acted willfully. To act “willfully” means to do something on purpose or willingly. A defense may be raised if there is room to argue that the accused’s actions were accidental rather than willful.
The first definition of child endangerment under 273a PC requires proof that the accused’s infliction of pain or suffering was unjustifiable. For example, a doctor who administers an injection causes pain, but the pain is justifiable in light of the benefit the child receives from medical treatment. Corrective behavior (also known as punishment) may be justifiable if it is reasonably necessary and not excessive. Pushing a child out of the way of a speeding bus would be justifiable even if that action injures the child. Whether a willful act that causes pain or suffering is justifiable is for a jury to decide.
The last 3 definitions allow the prosecution to prove that the accused caused or permitted the child to be injured or endangered (as opposed to directly inflicting harm), but only if the accused acted with criminal negligence.
To establish criminal negligence, the prosecution must prove 2 things:
- The accused acted in a reckless way that created a high risk of death or great bodily harm; and
- A reasonable person in the position of the accused would have known that acting in that way would create such a risk.
Criminal negligence is not easy to prove. For that reason, an offense involving negligent behavior will not usually lead to a child endangerment conviction unless the accused’s behavior was shocking or egregious.
Care or Custody
The last 2 alternatives apply only if the child was in the care or custody of the accused. Custody is awarded by a court. Care can be temporary. A child might be in the care of a babysitter or a teacher. In some cases, whether the child was in the accused’s care is unclear. That lack of clarity can be a basis for defending the charge.
The last alternative does not require proof that the child suffered actual harm. It is enough to show that the child was placed in danger. For example, if a child’s mother allows the child to spend an unsupervised afternoon with her uncle, knowing that the uncle is a child molester, the mother may have endangered the child.
When the child is not actually harmed, whether the child was in any actual danger is often a matter of opinion. That uncertainty gives the accused the opportunity to argue that reasonable doubt should lead to an acquittal.
Great Bodily Harm
Great bodily harm is a significant or substantial physical injury. A “moderate” injury is not great bodily harm. Since the difference between “substantial” and “moderate” is typically a matter of opinion, the defense can often argue that the child did not experience (or was never placed at risk of experiencing) great bodily harm.
Child Endangerment Penalties in CA
The punishments a court can impose for a child endangerment conviction depend on the level of charge.
For misdemeanor child endangerment where the minor was not at risk of great bodily harm or death, the penalties include:
- Up to 6 months in jail and/or
- Up to $1,000 in fines
Misdemeanor child endangerment where great bodily harm or death was likely can be penalized by
- Up to 1 year in jail and/or
- Up to $1,000 in fines
Felony child endangerment is punishable by:
- Imprisonment for 2, 4, or 6 years and/or
- Up to $10,000 in fines
For either a misdemeanor or felony conviction, the court may also sentence the accused to probation.
If probation is granted, the court may impose the following sanctions:
- Minimum of 4 years’ probation
- Protective order barring the accused from further acts of violence against the victim and returning to the residence
- Minimum of 1 year child abuser’s treatment program
- Abstaining from using drugs and/or alcohol (if the offense involved these substances)
The probation conditions imposed are at the discretion of the court. It may decide on other terms it feels are “in the best interests of justice.”
Aggressive Defense of Child Endangerment
You need to be guided by an experienced child endangerment defense attorney when you decide whether to pursue a plea bargain, a dismissal, or an acquittal at trial. The Law Offices of Randy Collins prides itself on helping clients arrive at the best decision while respecting their right to make their own choices.
The Law Offices of Randy Collins is prepared to provide aggressive defense in and out of court for Orange County child endangerment charges.