Leaving a Child Unattended in a Vehicle Can Be a Misdemeanor or Felony

A child might be left alone and unattended in a vehicle intentionally or by accident. It can be hard to comprehend how such a mistake can be made, but young children are sometimes forgotten.

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It is illegal to leave a child unattended in a vehicle by accident or intentionally.

Any parent or grandparent of a young child has encountered a situation where the child is sleeping when you arrive at a store or other location. When the stop is going to be brief, there might be some reluctance to waking the child, and that is understandable. However, it is a violation of criminal law to intentionally leave an unattended child in a vehicle if there is an unreasonable risk of harm or injury. “Unattended” means alone or without the supervision of an individual 13 years of age or older.

Leaving a child accidentally, if there is an injury or death, may constitute a different crime, such as child abuse or manslaughter. The criminal statute is entitled, “Leaving child unattended in vehicle; prohibition; violation; definitions.”

A child, for purposes of this law, is an individual who is less than six (6) years of age.

What is an unreasonable risk of harm or injury?

Michigan law does not clearly define an unreasonable risk. Because “unreasonable” is not defined in the statute. When a law does not define a term, the court will generally look to the ordinary dictionary definition. In People v. Lawhorn, for example, the court found that “reasonable” means:

Fair, proper, just, moderate, and suitable under the circumstances. Fit and appropriate to the end in view. Having the faculty of reason; rational; governed by reason; under the influence of reason; agreeable to reason. Thinking, speaking, or acting according to the dictates of reason. Not immoderate or excessive, being synonymous with rational, honest, equitable, fair, suitable, moderate, tolerable.

“Unreasonable” would likely be anything other than “reasonable.” In other words, a court would consider intentionally leaving an unattended child in a car “unreasonable” if that decision was improper, unjust, excessive, and unsuitable, or irrational.

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To establish guilt, does the government need to prove that the child’s caretaker, guardian, or parent intended to leave the child in the car?

Intent is required under the Leaving a Child Unattended in a Vehicle statute. If the person responsible for a child in a vehicle forgets or doesn’t remember that a child is in the vehicle, he or she lacks the requisite intent for a conviction. If the person does know the child is in the car and makes a conscious decision to leave the child, even for a brief moment, he or she may be guilty of leaving the child unattended, if the situation creates an unreasonable risk of harm. Actual harm is not required. The statute criminalizes the leaving of a child unattended even if there is just an unreasonable risk of harm.

Penalties for Leaving an Unattended Child in a Vehicle

  • No Injury: If the child does not suffer any injury, the offense is a misdemeanor punishable by up to 93 days in jail, 2 years of probation, and fines.
  • Physical Harm: If the child suffers physical harm, but not serious physical harm, the offense is a misdemeanor punishable by up to 1 year in jail, up to 2 years of probation, and fines.
  • Serious Physical Harm: If the child suffers serious physical harm, the offense is a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison, up to 5 years on probation, and hefty fines and costs.
  • Death of a Child. If the offense results in the death of the child, the offense is a felony punishable by up to 15 years in prison, up to 5 years on probation, and severe fines and costs.
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Defense Attorney for Leaving a Child Unattended in a Vehicle

Prosecutors and judges tend to believe any person who was responsible for a child that was left unattended in a vehicle is a terrible person and a danger to the community. While an individual might have made a terrible decision that resulted in an unreasonable risk of harm to a child, or worse, it is unlikely that the person is evil. The more likely scenario, in most cases, is that the person responsible for the child made a poor decision that resulted in unintended consequences. Although there might not be a legal excuse for committing this offense, a person’s stress, lack of knowledge, inattentiveness, or impulsivity might provide a reason or explanation that is mitigating.

The attorneys with LEWIS & DICKSTEIN, P.L.L.C. will not judge you. Our mission is to help our client and credibly persuade the government to understand that our client is not a bad person. While a prosecutor, police officer, or judge might be resistant to listening to or showing empathy for a defendant charged with this offense, a very skilled, compelling, and reputable lawyer will be able to get them to listen.

If you call us, we will not be judgmental, we will be empathetic, and we will listen to you. During a free consultation, we will take the time to answer your questions and address your concerns. Our defense lawyer can always find a way to help.

Call us today at (248) 263-6800 for a free consultation, or complete a Request for Assistance Form and we will contact you promptly.

We will find a way to help you and, most importantly,
we are not afraid to win!

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