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Leaving a Child in a Car Lawyers

Leaving a Child in a Car: Legal Consequences and Defense Strategies

Leaving a child unattended in a vehicle, even for a few minutes, can have tragic consequences. Over 900 children have died of vehicular heat stroke in the U.S. since 1990, with an average of 39 deaths per year[1]. As awareness of this danger has grown, so have the legal penalties. This article will examine the laws around leaving kids in cars, potential charges, and defense strategies if you find yourself accused.

Overview of Laws on Kids in Cars

Most states have laws that specifically prohibit leaving a child unattended in a vehicle. In California, it is illegal under Kaitlyn’s Law to leave a child age 6 or younger alone in a car if the conditions present a significant risk to the child’s health or safety. A first offense is an infraction punishable by a $100 fine.

If the child is injured or dies as a result of being left unattended, the adult responsible can face more serious criminal charges like child endangerment, negligent homicide, or even murder. The exact charges depend on the jurisdiction and circumstances of the case.

Child Endangerment Charges

One of the most common charges is child endangerment. This covers instances where a child was exposed to unreasonable risk of harm or injury. It can be charged as either a misdemeanor or felony, depending on the state and details of the case.

In California, misdemeanor child endangerment under Penal Code Section 273a is punishable by up to a year in county jail. Felony child endangerment can carry up to 6 years in state prison. Prosecutors typically pursue felony charges if the child suffered great bodily injury.

To prove child endangerment, the prosecution must show:

  • The defendant had care or custody of a child under age 18
  • The defendant willfully or negligently endangered the child’s physical/mental health
  • The defendant was criminally negligent (showed a disregard for human life)
  • The child was exposed to a substantial risk of serious injury or death

Negligent Homicide Charges

If a child dies from being left unattended in a hot vehicle, negligent homicide charges are possible. Also known as involuntary manslaughter, this covers accidentally causing someone’s death through criminal negligence.

In California, the relevant law is Penal Code 192(b):

Involuntary—in the commission of an unlawful act, not amounting to a felony; or in the commission of a lawful act which might produce death, in an unlawful manner, or without due caution and circumspection.

So leaving a child unattended in a car, even if unintentional, could qualify as criminally negligent behavior leading to death.

Murder Charges

In the most egregious cases, prosecutors may seek murder charges against the responsible adult. This requires showing the defendant acted with “malice aforethought” – in a way that showed extreme indifference to human life.

For example, murder charges could apply if someone deliberately left a child in a dangerously hot car to cause harm. But even unintentional deaths have sometimes led to murder charges, if the adult’s behavior was reckless enough to demonstrate a depraved disregard for life. Proving malice can be difficult, however.

In 2019, a Mississippi man was tried for capital murder after leaving his infant son in a hot car for hours while he was at work. Prosecutors argued his actions were “unreasonably risky” and showed a “depraved heart.” But the jury acquitted him of murder, convicting only on the lesser charge of negligent homicide[2].

Potential Defenses

If you are charged after leaving a child unattended in a vehicle, several legal defenses may apply:

Lack of criminal negligence – The prosecution typically must prove you acted with criminal negligence, meaning a disregard for human life. An accident or momentary lapse in judgment would not rise to that level.

No endangerment – You can argue the child was not exposed to a substantial risk of serious injury or death based on the circumstances. For example, if the car was running with air conditioning on and doors locked.

Insanity – In some cases, a psychiatric disorder could provide grounds for an insanity defense. The burden of proof would be on you to show a mental defect made you unable to understand the wrongfulness or consequences of your actions.

Diminished capacity – Even if you don’t qualify for an insanity defense, diminished mental capacity could potentially reduce the charges. You would need to show you lacked the specific mental state required for conviction of the most serious charges.

Duress – If you can prove you were coerced or under immediate threat of harm, that could excuse acting negligently or illegally. For example, if someone else locked the child in your car against your will.

Good faith mistake – Arguing that you genuinely and reasonably believed the child would be safe could undermine criminal negligence claims. For example, you forgot to drop them off at daycare because your routine was disrupted.

Sentencing mitigation – While not a full defense, evidence about your background, mental health issues, lack of criminal history, remorse, etc. could lead to reduced sentencing if convicted.


Leaving a child alone in a car can have devastating consequences and serious legal penalties. But charges ranging from fines to felony child endangerment or homicide depend heavily on the precise circumstances of the case. An experienced criminal defense attorney can fully investigate the details and identify any viable defenses to achieve the best possible outcome. They can also advocate for mitigating factors that could reduce sentencing if convicted. Above all, we must continue raising awareness to prevent these preventable tragedies.

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