Child Endangerment – PC 273(a)

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California Penal Code Elements for Child Endangerment 

California Penal Code 273(a) governs child endangerment crimes. Child endangerment is defined as willfully exposing a child under 18 years old to unjustifiable pain, suffering, or danger. A person can be charged with child endangerment for merely subjecting the child to an unreasonable risk of harm, even if the risk never comes to fruition.

Child endangerment charges can be brought against any adult who has a minor child (under 18 years old) in his or her care. The adult need not be the parent’s child. Child endangerment can be charged in another of these circumstances:

·         The adult causes or permits a minor to suffer unjustifiable physical pain or mental suffering,

·         The adult willfully causes or permits a minor to be injured, or

·         The adult willfully causes or permits a minor to be placed in a dangerous situation.

Additionally, the prosecution will have to show beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant was criminally negligent when he or she caused or permitted the child to suffer the injuries or become endangered, and, if the adult is the minor’s parent, the adult was not reasonably disciplining the child.

Definitions to Better Understand Child Endangerment 

To better understand the definition and elements of child endangerment, some terms can be further defined. Even though child endangerment is sometimes referred to as child abuse, it is not the same thing as California Penal Code 273(d), which defines California’s child abuse law. 

An act is done “willfully” if it is done on purpose. This means that the defendant purposefully did an act that could have resulted in harm.

 The phrase “unjustifiable physical pain or mental suffering” means pain or suffering that either is not reasonably necessary or is excessive under the circumstances.

The term “criminal negligence” involves more than ordinary carelessness, inattention, or mistake. A person acts with criminal negligence when their behavior is so aggravated, gross, or reckless that it goes against common sense. The test is whether a reasonable person in a similar situation would have engaged in the same behavior.

The phrase “great bodily harm” is defined under California law as any significant or substantial injury. This can be a broad definition, and it is decided on a case by case basis.

Examples of Child Endangerment 

There are numerous examples of child endangerment, but a common example is leaving a dangerous weapon, such as a knife or loaded gun, where a child can reach it easily. 

Another example is when a guardian leaves a minor with a babysitter with a history of abusive behavior. In this situation, both the guardian and babysitter could be charged with child endangerment. 

Additionally, if a guardian fails to get adequate medical treatment for a sick child, the adult could be charged with child endangerment.

Charging a Child Endangerment Crime - What is a “Wobbler” Offense? 

The penalties and punishment for Penal Code 273(a), child endangerment, varies depending on whether the child was at risk of death or great bodily harm, due to the adult’s conduct.

If the child was at risk of death or great bodily harm, the child endangerment charge becomes a California “wobbler” offense. A “wobbler” offense means that the crime can be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony at the prosecution’s discretion.

Misdemeanor Conviction Penalties 

If the child was not at risk of death or great bodily harm, then the child endangerment charge is a misdemeanor, which is punishable by up to one year in jail and/or a fine up to $1,000.

Felony Conviction Penalties

If the child endangerment crime is charged as a felony, it is punishable by up to six years in state prison and/or a fine up to $10,000. 

Additionally, it is possible for the defendant to receive an additional sentencing enhancement of three to six years in state prison when the case involves a child that was seriously harmed at the hands of the defendant. The additional sentence will be consecutive to the underlying sentence. 

Additionally, any felony child endangerment conviction that involves great bodily harm does count under California’s three strikes law.

Possible Probation Sentence 

In cases where the harm to the child is less serious, it is possible for a judge to sentence a defendant to probation, either misdemeanor or felony probation. However, this is entirely in the judge’s discretion and is dependent on a number of circumstances, including the severity of any injuries. 

When/if a defendant is sentenced to probation, there may be other conditions placed upon the defendant, such as a protective (restraining) order, mandatory counseling, and/or drug testing.

Extreme Charges Relating to Child Endangerment - Murder or Mansalughter 

In extreme cases where a child dies because of the endangerment, the prosecution may choose to file more serious charges of manslaughter or murder against the defendant. These can include voluntary manslaughter, involuntary manslaughter, or second-degree murder.

Legal Defenses to Child Endangerment 

Though child endangerment is a serious crime, there are multiple common legal defenses to fight the charge. An experienced criminal attorney will be able to advise someone facing these charges on all their options. Some defenses include:

·         The “endangerment” was not intentional

·         The “endangerment” did not amount to criminal negligence

·         The defendant was legally discipling their child

·         The defendant was the victim of a false accusation

·         The defendant was wrongly accused for injuries by another’s conduct