Penal Code 273a Child Endangerment
Child endangerment, or 273a PC , is a crime of domestic violence that is 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 who lives 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.
Child endangerment defined
Endangerment of a child appears in PC 273a. That statute provides four alternative definitions of child endangerment.
To obtain a conviction, the prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused committed one of the following acts:
- 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.
If any of those acts created the likelihood that the child would suffer great bodily harm, the crime can be (and usually is) charged as a felony.
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.
Each alternative requires proof that the accused acted willfully. To act “willfully” means to do something on purpose or willingly. The accused has a defense if there is room to argue that his or her 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 action that causes pain or suffering is justifiable is for a jury to decide.
The last three 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 two 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 two 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 experienced (or was never placed at risk of experiencing) great bodily harm.
Penal Code 273a penalties
The crime of child endangerment as defined in 273a PC is a “wobbler” if the offense created the risk of great bodily harm or death. That means a prosecutor can charge it as a felony or a misdemeanor. If charged as a misdemeanor, the offense carries a maximum jail sentence of one year. If charged as a felony, the maximum prison sentence is six years.
If the charge does not allege a risk of great bodily harm, the offense is a misdemeanor. The maximum sentence in that case is six months.
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.
Whether you want an aggressive trial defense from an award winning Penal Code 273a defense lawyer or a reasonable plea agreement, The Law Offices of Randy Collins is prepared to assist you. Contact us at 888-250-2865 to make an appointment at one of our Southern California offices.
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