(California Penal Code sections 270-273.75 P.C., et seq.; 273(a) P.C.;
California Vehicle Code section 23572 V.C.)

Child-abuse crimes always involve an act, or a failure to act as required by law, that results in any type of harm to a child, including psychological damage.

These types of cases cover an extensive range of harm, from simple child abuse by a parent exceeding the scope of his/her authority when disciplining the child, all the way up to so-called “hot car” deaths involving babies and toddlers.

For purposes of this statute, whether you as the defendant acted in an active or passive capacity – for example, you left the child alone in an unreasonably dangerous situation (passive), or you personally physically attacked the minor (active) – makes little difference as far prosecuting this type of offense, but are nevertheless helpful when it comes to understanding the different types of criminal abuse in California.

As with all wobblers, child abuse can be prosecuted as either a misdemeanor or felony, depending on what the Deputy District Attorney wants to do based on the particulars of the incident and your own personal criminal history.

One of the most common child-endangerment crimes we see is where a parent drives with his or her blood alcohol content above the legal limit of .08% with one or more minors under fourteen years of age in the vehicle. Vehicle Code section 23572 V.C. includes sentencing enhancements for any DUI conviction under this circumstance. For example, this code requires you to serve a minimum of forty-eight hours in jail even on a first-time DUI. If you drive recklessly while driving while intoxicated, you will likely be charged with felony child endangerment.

Another common charge we see at the Los Angeles Defense Attorney Law Firm is child abandonment, primarily in situations where a parent or guardian willfully withheld items necessary for the child’s well-being, including food, shelter, clothing, medical services, etc. The defendant’s finances will be closely scrutinized by the detective or prosecutor’s investigator to determine if the withholding was reasonable and unintentional in light of the defendant’s financial situation.

These cases can become far more complicated than you might imagine – particularly when there are third-party witnesses such as teachers, health-care providers, and social workers, who are all required by law to immediately report any suspicion of child abuse. If they fail to report, they risk losing their professional license, as well as risk being prosecuted for misdemeanor failure to report child abuse, which can result in as much as a six-month sentence in the county jail.

Some of these cases may even require the presentation of expert witnesses by both the prosecution and defense at trial. For example, certain medical experts could be called to testify as to the nature, extent, and cause of the alleged victim’s injuries.

Examples of Passive Child Abuse (Misdemeanor)

– During a one-month period in spring 2017, Pasadena resident and San Gabriel (LA County) high school coach Danny L. Harris allegedly “sexted” a female student (age seventeen) with suggestive messages. According to San Gabriel PD, the victim’s family member found them and called them. In late 2017, Harris was arrested and prosecuted by the DA’s Office. In early November 8, 2018, he pled no contest to misdemeanor child endangerment in consideration for the dismissal of all other (more serious) charges. His sentence: a week-and-a-half in the county facility (but with credit for time served), and sixty months’ probation (which required he abstain from: coaching anyone under age 18 without adult supervision; communicating with the same without an adult present; waiver of search & seizure rights, etc.). He was also required to comply with a decade-long victim protection order; attend one year of weekly 12-step classes; and complete six weeks of volunteer work.

– In early April 2018, according to Beverly Hills PD, Angeleno Paul F. Floyd stomped on the front hood of a vehicle belonging to his domestic partner, actress Jamie King (Sin City), while she and her four-year-old boy & nanny sat in the front and back seats, respectively. Floyd allegedly shattered the vehicle’s glass then hurled a glass bottle at the nanny, wounding her (though not seriously). He was arrested and charged with various felonies. However, in mid-October, he pled no contest to misdemeanor child endangerment, as well as several other related felonies and misdemeanors. Sentence: over six months’ county jail (with credit for time served), thirty-six month’s formal probation, completion of 12 months’ in-patient rehab, and full restitution.

– In early October 2018, Showtime’s Ray Donovan star Pooch Hall (a.k.a. Marion H. Hall) was arrested in Burbank after he allegedly crashed his vehicle into a parked automobile. He was arrested for a misdemeanor DUI because of his BAC level (which was allegedly above .08%, the legal limit), and for felony child endangerment because he had been driving with his two-year-old son sitting on his lap. In mid-March 2019, he pled no contest to two misdemeanor charges (DUI and child abuse) and was sentenced to three years’ informal probation, twelve months of parenting classes, and ninety days of outpatient alcohol counseling.

Examples of Passive Child Abuse (Felony)

As indicated above, any hot car case that involves injury or death to the child will automatically result in a felony charge that carries potentially significant prison time. The following are additional examples of felony child abuse where the defendant did not actively seek to harm the victim:

– In late December 2012, DCFS (the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services) conducted a search of the Woodland Hills home of comedian Katt Williams (a.k.a. Micah S. Williams) and allegedly found a gun and marijuana to which several children living there had access. As required, DCFS notified police and Williams was arrested for felony child endangerment. However, his attorney was apparently able to successfully present a mitigation/exculpation package to the DA’s Office, which declined to file charges after the attorney was able to prove that the gun had been locked away and the marijuana could have belonged to any of numerous guests who had been staying there. At that point, the DA’s Office passed the case off to the City Attorney’s Office, which exclusively handles misdemeanors, but they also declined to prosecute.

– In late February 2019, Miriam S. Montano was arrested in Fontana by police and charged with felony child endangerment. Police alleged that Montano had made a “nine-one-one” call to report a medical emergency, and when paramedics arrived, they discovered that her daughter was turning blue and no longer breathing. She was rushed to the nearest hospital but died four days later. Montano was therefore also charged with second-degree murder and faces a maximum sentence of life in prison with the possibility of parole. The child’s father, Richard Rojo, was also charged with felony child endangerment. Montano had allegedly been on probation for a prior child-abuse conviction from 2015 that also concerned her daughter. The Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS) reportedly removed several other children living at the residence.

– In early December 2, 2019, Santa Paula (Ventura County) firefighters charged into a burning home and rescued its two occupants – Maricela M. Ruiz and her three-year-old son – who were both allegedly found in separate rooms on separate floors with their hands bound and bags over their heads. Police did so after they claimed they found evidence that Ruiz had started the fire herself, and even made the nine-one-one call to report the fire. They also claimed Ruiz called additional people before setting the fire, including two relatives. Both were treated for smoke inhalation but were otherwise uninjured. Ruiz was charged with felony child endangerment.

– In mid-December 2019, Butte County (NorCal) sheriff’s deputies arrested three Orinda residents – Eric Becerril, Becerril’s mother, Anna Valles, and Edward Silvera – for felony child endangerment after two teenage girls allegedly staying at the residence were found to have been using heroin there. (The raid stemmed from an anonymous tip.) According to the Sheriff’s Department, deputies found heroin, hypodermic needles, and other drug paraphernalia. Becerril was also facing a felony charge of maintaining a residence for drug use or sales.

Examples of Active Child Abuse (Misdemeanor)

– In early November 2018, Anaheim resident and Maywood (LA County) high school instructor Marston Riley allegedly got into an altercation with a freshman boy, during which Riley struck the boy. In late November, he was arrested by LASD deputies and charged with misdemeanor corporal injury to a child. Maximum sentence: 12 months in the county facility.

– In early February 2020, an LA County jury acquitted of all charges a handful of deputy officers with the Los Angeles County Department of Probation. All five defendants had been tried on various criminal counts stemming from an alleged retaliatory campaign of pepper-spraying female inmates at the Los Padrinos prison facility for juveniles where the P.O.’s all worked. The defendants – who were all women – had been tried on misdemeanor charges of child endangerment and felony charges of assault by a corrections officer. If the deputy probation officers had been found guilty as charged, their sentences could have amounted to as much as eight-and-three-quarters years in a California penal institution.

– In early March 2017, couple Holly Piazza and Brian Chase were cited, but not arrested, in Corona (Riverside County) and charged with misdemeanor child endangerment after a would-be YouTube stunt allegedly went wrong. The stunt allegedly involved their unfastened young son and his nanny riding in the bed of a large open pickup truck on water-absorbent pads. Piazza and Chase were cited one week after they uploaded the video, which allegedly depicted the boy and nanny bouncing up and down in the bed as the truck sped along a boulevard.

– In mid-December 2018, Fresno PD arrested local California Congressman Joaquin Arambula (democrat) for misdemeanor willful cruelty to a child for allegedly exceeding the bounds of his parental disciplinary rights by assaulting his eight-year-old daughter. Three months later, the Fresno DA’s Office charged him. He maintained his innocence, insisting that he had only spanked her after she had started acting up at home. According to police, they arrested Arambula at his daughter’s public school after she had reported to a school nurse that he had beat her the night before. (The nurse reportedly called Child Protective Services who, in turn, called FPD.) If convicted, he would face a maximum of 180 days in county jail.

Examples of Active Child Abuse (Felony)

– In early June 2014, Angeleno J. Zamora allegedly caused blunt-force trauma to his domestic partner/girlfriend’s child (age three), and then intentionally delayed the mother’s calling authorities or medical personnel. In the ER, Zamora allegedly forced the mother to file a false report about the incident. Almost a month later, while the child continue to recover at the hospital, Zamora allegedly struck the mother and, again, prevented her from calling help. LASD deputies arrested him less than a week later for both incidents. Unfortunately, the child never recovered and was essentially rendered a vegetable. As a result, in early February 2015, the mother, Hope Beltran, pled no contest to felony child abuse for allegedly exposing the child to harm by having Zamora live at their home. (According to the DA’s Office, when police searched the home, they found evidence that he had repeatedly zabused the child in the past.) Zamora himself ultimately pled no contest to multiple felonies, including for child abuse, discouraging a witness from reporting to authorities, threatening a witness, and assault & battery on the mother. In early April 2015, the judge sentenced him to more than twenty years in a state correctional facility – a term which included an enhancement for causing serious harm to a minor under age five. The same judge also ordered the mother to serve twelve months’ incarceration, and to finish an in-patient rehab program for the same amount of time.

– On New Year’s Eve 2015, Downey resident Ashley D. Jones allegedly awoke to find her five-month-old child unconscious and not breathing, then called Nine-One-One. Unfortunately, the child was pronounced dead upon arrival at the ER, with doctors allegedly finding the cause of death to have resulted from a severe beating, and finding that there was abundant evidence of prior physical abuse. On New Year’s Day, Downey PD (after having apparently been notified by the ER doctors) arrested Jones and her live-in boyfriend (who was also the child’s father), Johnathan Lucero, on a variety of serious felonies. Following a bench trial (no jury, only a judge present), the judge both guilty as charged, thereby convicting Jones of second-degree murder and felony child abuse; and Locero of felony child abuse, with both to receive sentencing enhancements for causing serious injury to a minor under age five. Maximum sentence for Jones: a minimum of fifteen years and a maximum of life. Maximum for Lucero: a decade behind bars.

– At the end of August 2018, reality TV star, Gloria Govan of the VH1 series Basketball Wives, was arrested for felony child endangerment after allegedly getting into a physical altercation with her ex-husband, Golden State Warriors’ player Matt Barnes, at their children’s school. Specifically, as allegedly set forth in their joint custody agreement, Barnes was supposed to pick up their twin nine-year-old boys from their school and take them to his home for the long Labor Day weekend. Instead, however, Dovan allegedly arrived minutes before Barnes and placed the twins in her car so she could taken them back to her home. When Barnes arrived shortly afterwards, he allegedly told the twins to get into his car, which they did. At that point, police alleged that Dovan flew into a rage, blocking Barnes’ car to prevent him from fleeing, and screaming hysterically. Govan was charged with a felony – despite the fact that there were no injuries – because of the degree of risk of harm in which she allegedly placed her children. (She was also charged with a misdemeanor for allegedly violating a court order.) Realistically, however, she will likely be able to plea this down to a misdemeanor – either child endangerment or perhaps even for merely disturbing the peace.

Defense Strategies to Child-Abuse Cases

Many of these cases come down to the issue of whether the parent or guardian was legally justified in, for example, disciplining the child, and whether he or she was acting within their parental rights to do so. Therefore, your defense counsel will want to present as much credible evidence as possible to support your position that you were acting within these rights. In some of these more complex cases, you may have to put on an expert witness, particularly if the prosecution does so at trial (or, in felony cases, also at the preliminary hearing).

See, e.g., CALCRIM Jury Instruction no. 823 (Child Abuse).

The second major element to be defeated, if possible, is that of willfulness, which essentially means that you intended to commit the crime. However, if the injury to the child resulted from a legitimate accident, such as a fire that originated in embers you inadvertently left burning in the backyard firepit, then obviously this would be one of the strongest defenses you could assert.

Although he was never actually charged with a crime, Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee asserted this very same defense after his son’s four-year-old friend, Daniel Karven-Veres, drowned during a birthday party at Lee’s Malibu home in mid-June 2001. After providing evidence that the victim had been neglected by his nanny, who had reportedly left the party before the incident, Lee’s attorney was able to convince the authorities not to pursue a criminal case.

Conversely, in that same incident, the nanny – exchange student Christian Weihs, who allegedly fled back to his native Germany to escape potential prosecution – blamed the incident on another nanny whom he claimed had agreed to look after the victim so Weihs could go to a concert later that same night. The second nanny, however, claimed she had only agreed to take the victim home to his parents, and not to look after him for the rest of the evening. Regardless, had Wiehs remained in the US and faced arrest for what almost certainly would have been a felony child-neglect charge, this he-said-versus-she-said scenario, in the hands of a skilled lawyer, would likely have raised reasonable doubt for a jury.

In many of these types of cases, if the evidence supports this defense, you would argue that you, as the legal guardian or parent, had done everything reasonably possible to ensure the safety of the child, but that due to circumstances beyond your control, he or she was nevertheless harmed.

See California Penal Code section 273(a) P.C., as well as Judicial Council of California Criminal Jury Instructions CALCRIM 823.

Potential Conviction Results

Under California guidelines, if you are convicted of felony child abuse, you could face between two and six years’ incarceration, based on the specific facts of the case. Otherwise, with a misdemeanor plea or conviction, you would be looking at one year maximum in the county jail.

In addition, you could be hit with various fines and costs; probation of three to five years (but only if you weren’t forced to do prison time); possible counseling and community service; potential imposition of stay-away orders; loss of guardianship or custody; and/or supervised visitation by a court-ordered CPS social worker.

See California Penal Code section 273(a) P.C.

A Few of Our Firm’s Past Child Abuse Cases:

Hot-car toddler death – both parents facing 12 years – result: diversion only

People v. P.L. and Z.L.: Our clients – a husband and wife – were each facing twelve years in state prison as a result of the hot-car death of their three-year-old daughter. They were both prosecuted for felony child endangerment in the Pomona superior courthouse. Neither had ever been in trouble before and so were understandably terrified. In addition, the wife stood to permanently lose her professional medical license as a registered nurse. After a month of extensive preparation, we put together a packet of documents that we presented to the DA’s Office that evidenced the fact that the death had resulted from a tragic accident (and not through any criminal negligence on their part). As a result, we were able to obtain formal diversion for both of them, and the wife was able to save her license. After successfully completing diversion, the charges against both clients were dismissed.