In the eyes of the law (at least in California), placing a child in a dangerous situation, or otherwise exposing him or her to an unreasonable risk of harm, equates to child abuse. In other words, the severity of the applicable crimes and punishments for child endangerment are tantamount to those of “active” child abuse.
Notwithstanding, understanding the distinctions between active and “passive” child abuse, and their respective ramifications, will be critical for your defense against such charges.
Chid endangerment prosecutions often concern whether the purported victim’s parent(s) or legal guardian(s) was/were acting reasonably when punishing the child, as well as whether the force utilized was justified under the circumstances. And while many of these crimes are charged as misdemeanors, others can be tried as felonies with serious consequences – so-called “hot-car” deaths being among the most egregious.
State Statutes Regarding Domestic Violence – Child Endangerment
In contrast to active child abuse, passive child abuse can take several different forms, including child endangerment, which is codified in California Penal Code section 273a, and which – depending on the circumstances – can be charged as a felony or a misdemeanor (and, thus, it’s commonly referred to as a “wobbler” crime).
Specifically, you can be charged with a felony under this statute if:
you intentionally place a child in a situation likely to result in serious injury or even death;
you intentionally cause or allow someone else to cause the child unjustifiable physical pain or mental distress;
while having legal care or custody of the child, you actually injure or allow someone else to injure the child; or
while having legal care or custody, you endanger the health of the child.
Perhaps one of the most seemingly innocuous child-endangerment misdemeanor crimes occurs anytime you have, say, a few glasses of wine at a restaurant or party, then drive home – with your child in the back. Any time you drive with a blood alcohol content (“BAC”) above .08 percent – i.e., meaning you are legally intoxicated – you can be charged with violating this statute when transporting anyone under fourteen years of age.
Specifically, assuming you are convicted of California Vehicle Code section 23152 – i.e., driving under the influence -- and a minor thirteen years or younger is riding with you, then you will be charged with this additional Vehicle Code violation.
Convictions and Sentencing Terms for Domestic Violence – Child Endangerment
California Penal Code section 273a
If convicted for Penal Code section 273a, you will receive the following punishment:
a state prison sentence of two, four or six years (when charged as a felony); or
a maximum of one year in the county jail (misdemeanor or felony).
However, if a child is injured in any of these same ways but under circumstances that were not likely to result in serious injury or death, then you will definitely be charged with a misdemeanor, which by definition will always carry only a maximum term of 12 months in the county jail.
If you’re convicted and sentenced to probation (either with or without county jail, though never when a prison sentence is handed down), then the conditions will be as follows:
a mandatory sentence of no less than 48 months;
a protective order against you to protect the child from additional violence or threats;
a possible stay-away order which would include banning you from, or forcing you to move out of, the child’s home;
one year of a child abuser’s treatment counseling program;
abstention from using alcohol or drugs; substance abuse counseling; and random drug testing (if you were under the influence of alcohol or drugs at the time); and
payment of restitution and/or court fees.
The counseling program, which is sanctioned by the Los Angeles County Department of Probation, must meet the requirements set forth in California Penal Code section 273.1.
California Vehicle Code section 23572
If you are convicted of driving while intoxicated with a passenger who is less than fourteen years old, then you can expect to receive the following sentencing terms:
a minimum of forty-eight hours in the county jail (even if you otherwise receive only probation, including informal/summary probation – in other words, this two-day incarceration cannot be stayed or suspended); or
a minimum of ten days in the county jail (same); or
a full month in the county jail (same); or
three entire months in jail (same).
Defenses to Domestic Violence – Child Endangerment
California Penal Code section 273a
The following are all legitimate defenses to this charge:
you did not act purposefully;
you did not actual place the child in danger of serious harm, much less death;
you did not permit him or her to suffer unjustifiable pain or suffering;
you did not have legal care or custody of the child at the time of the incident;
if you did have legal care/custody, you did not permit – at least not intentionally – his or her well-being to be jeopardized or harmed, including by another person;
nor did you place the child in a situation where he or she could be endangered, again, including by someone else;
at no time were you behaving in a criminally negligent manner; and/or
the purported victim was actually an adult at the time (i.e., over seventeen years old).
See California Criminal Jury Instructions (“CALCRIM”) number 823 (“Child Abuse”).
California Vehicle Code section 23572
Any successful defenses to a driving under the influence (DUI) charge – again, a Vehicle Code § 23152 violation – will obviously apply to this charge. In addition, of course, any exculpatory evidence you can present to the court that the purported victim was at least fifteen years old at the time of the incident, or that he or she was not actually in your vehicle at the alleged time, should prevent a conviction. Vehicle Code § 23572(b).
Examples of Domestic Violence – Child Endangerment – Misdemeanor Charges
San Gabriel High School Coach Pleads No Contest to Sexting Underage Female Student
According to prosecutors, between April and May 2017 (approximately a four-week period), Daniel Harris – a San Gabriel high school coach who resided in Pasadena – texted sexual communications to an under-eighteen-years-of-age female in her senior year. A spokesperson for the San Gabriel Police Department claimed that the girl’s parents discovered the texts then called SGPD.
As a result, later that year, police apprehended Harris, and the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office charged him with misdemeanor Child Endangerment (Penal Code section 273a).
One year later, he accepted a no contest plea to that charge, served almost two weeks in the LA County Men’s Jail, and received a formal probation term of five years. As part of his probation, he was prohibited from coaching students who were seventeen years old or younger without another adult present.
As far as the victim, Harris also was required to honor a ten-year-long stay-away order, which included a no-contact provision. Finally, he was also forced to attend fifty-two weeks of group therapy and perform a month and a half of community service. See abc7.com.
Actress Jaime King’s Ex-Domestic Partner Pleads No Contest to Child Endangerment
On or about April 1, 2018, actress Jaime King (the 2012 feature film Red Tails) was in the process of picking up her four-year old son with his nanny when her live-in boyfriend, fellow LA resident Paul Floyd, arrived. Moments after King, the nanny, and son buckled up, Floyd allegedly leapt up on top of her vehicle and jumped up and down on her hood – in full view of numerous other parents and children.
Floyd then allegedly broke the glass of the windshield and threw a glass object at the nanny, slightly injuring her. As a result, LAPD arrested him, and the DA’s Office prosecuted him for multiple felony charges, including Assault with a Deadly Weapon (ADW) (California Penal Code section 245(a)(1)).
Six months later, Floyd took a no-contest plea to misdemeanor child endangerment, among other charges stemming from the incident. Accordingly, the sentencing judge gave him approximately two hundreds days in the downtown Twin Towers men’s facility, three years of formal probation, fifty-two weeks in a live-in mental health program, and a victim-compensation payment obligation. See foxnews.com.
Actor Marion “Pooch” Hall Pleads No Contest to Two Misdemeanors Stemming from DUI
On or about October 1, 2018, actor Marion Hall, who played “Daryll Donovan” (Jon Voight’s character’s youngest son) on Showtime’s hit series Ray Donovan, was allegedly driving in the San Fernando Valley with his two-year-old toddler seated on his lap. According to law enforcement authorities, Hall was above the legal limit of .08% BAC when he lost control and plowed into a parked sedan. As a result, he was arrested for felony child endangerment and misdemeanor DUI (Driving Under the Influence) (California Vehicle Code section 23152).
Five months later, he accepted a no-contest plea for two misdemeanors – the driving while under the influence charge and a reduced child endangerment charge. He was fortunate to avoid jail and received a relatively light sentence of thirty-six months of summary probation, fifty-two weekly counseling sessions, and three months of outpatient substance abuse treatment.
Parents Charged with Misdemeanor after YouTube Stunt Involving Eight-Year-Old Son is Uploaded
On or about March 7, 2017, domestic partners Holly Piazza and Brian Chase were alleged by Riverside Co. authorities to have jeopardized the safety of their eight-year-old boy via a misguided attempt at a YouTube video. Specifically, Piazza and Chase supposedly drove their truck at an excessive rate of speed while their boy and his nanny bounced around unrestrained in the open bed on inflatable cushions.
Seven days after they shared their video on YouTube, Corona police issued them a misdemeanor citation for child endangerment (but, since the offense didn’t occur in their presence, did not actually apprehend them). See latimes.com.
Examples of Domestic Violence – Child Endangerment – Felony Charges
Comedian Katt Williams is Cleared of Felony Child Endangerment Allegations
On or about December 21, 2012, famous comic Micah “Katt” Williams’s mansion in Woodland Hills was searched by social workers from the LA County’s Dept. of Children & Family Services (DCFS), although it remains unclear why they were initially summoned. In any event, the social workers allegedly discovered a firearm, as well as cannabis.
Because several minors were living in the home and allegedly had access to the items, LAPD arrested Williams on suspicion of felony child endangerment (among other charges). (Whether they were his own children also remains unclear.)
Fortunately for Williams, though, his attorney was able to present exculpatory evidence to the District Attorney, which thereafter dropped the case – including evidence which proved the pistol had actually been locked and secured at the time, and that the cannabis was not necessarily Williams’ as other people were staying there at the time. The exculpatory evidence was so strong that even the City Attorney passed on the opportunity to prosecute him for any misdemeanor violations. See tmz.com.
Fontana Mother Charged with Second-Degree Murder and Felony Child Endangerment
On or about February 21, 2019, officers from the Fontana Police Department arrested parents Miriam Montano and Richard Rojo on suspicion of felony Child Endangerment (Pen. Code section 273a). According to the authorities, Montano had dialed 9-1-1 to report that her female toddler was not breathing. Tragically, after EMTs arrived, they found the three-year-old unresponsive, and rushed her to the ER, where doctors were unable to revive her. She died less than a week later.
As a result, Montano was also charged with Second-Degree Murder (California Penal Code section 192(a)&(b)) with a potential life-in-prison-with-the-possibility-of-parole sentence. At the time, Montano had reportedly been on formal probation for a previous domestic violence conviction regarding the same child. San Bernardino County’s DCFS also took several other kids away from Montano and Rojo’s home. See washingtontimes.com.
Mother Charged with Intentionally Setting Fire to Her Own House with Three-Year-Old Present
On or about December 1, 2019, Ventura Co. fire personnel arrived at a home in Santa Paula in response to an emergency call and found the residence engulfed in flames. After charging into the building, the firemen discovered Maricela Ruiz and her toddler (age three) in different parts of the residence with their hands tied and paper bags on their heads.
The local sheriff’s department later alleged that Ruiz had bound her son herself, started the fire, called 9-1-1, then somehow bound herself (although her motive remains unclear). Fortunately, the toddler only suffered from mild smoke inhalation but was otherwise unharmed. Nevertheless, Ruiz was charged with felony child endangerment. See ktla.com.
Three Butte County Adults are Accused of Supplying Heroin to Underage Teens
On or about December 15, 2019, the Butte County Sheriff’s Dept. (in northern California) apprehended a trio of local residents – Eric Beceril, his mom Anna Valles, and Eddie Silvera – after allegedly supplying four female underage teens living at their home with heroin, and allowing them to take the drug. Deputies arrived after receiving an anonymous call and allegedly discovered the drug, hypo needles, and other illegal contraband.
As a result, all three adults were charged with felony child endangerment. In addition, Beceril was charged with a felony count of allowing her home to be used for the sale/consumption of illegal narcotics. See mercurynews.com.
The Importance of Expert Witnesses for Your Defense at Trial
Expert witnesses will often be required for your defense in a child endangerment case, and not merely to counter the prosecution’s expert,. For example, a child psychologist, family therapist or medical doctor who treated or examined the purported victim may be necessary to call to the stand on your behalf to address the prosecutor’s injury (physical or emotional) allegations.
Alternatively, another defense expert may be required to educate the judge (at the preliminary hearing and/or at trial) and the jury (trial only) that you were acting within the parameters of your parental rights to discipline your child, and that under the circumstances, you were acting reasonably.
Or perhaps you need an accident reconstruction expert to help the judge and jury understand that while the fire you inadvertently left burning in the backyard fire pit did admittedly cause the house to burn, resulting in the house going up in flames and injuring your child, your doing so did not rise to the level of criminal negligence and, therefore, you should not be convicted of child endangerment.
As a result, the Los Angeles Defense Attorney Law Firm (LADALF) works only with experts whose integrity and credibility are unassailable in court, and who will only testify when the evidence truly supports his or her testimony.
An Example of an LADALF Hot-Car Death/Child Endangerment Case (People v. P.L. and Z.L.)
A husband-wife couple hired LADALF senior attorney Ninaz Saffari after they were arrested and charged by Pomona authorities with second-degree murder and felony child endangerment resulting from the tragic death of their beloved daughter (under four years old at the time) as a result of being inadvertently left in the back of their vehicle on a hot day with no ventilation. As a result, each parent was facing almost thirteen years in a state penitentiary.
Notably, neither parent had ever been charged with so much as a misdemeanor, much less convicted of any crime (including an infraction). The terror of facing more than a decade behind bars and the destruction of their family (they had four other children), compounded with the indescribable agony of losing their youngest child, was truly overwhelming.
Furthermore, the wife was a licensed registered nurse and, therefore, would automatically lose her license with a felony conviction (and possibly even with just a misdemeanor in this instance).
After she was retained, Ninaz immediately jumped on the case, exhaustively and meticulously putting together a comprehensive package of exculpatory and mitigating evidence, which she provided to the Assistant District Attorney prosecuting the case (in Pomona superior court) that proved the tragedy was the result of an accident (and not from criminal negligence, for example).
In the end, the DA’s Office agreed to give them each formal diversion, which ultimately resulted in the cases being dismissed, thereby saving their freedom, their family, and the mother’s career.
The Los Angeles Criminal Defense Attorney Law Firm (LADALF)
Going on sixteen years of criminal-defense practice, LADALF senior attorney Ninaz Saffari has successfully defended clients charged with child endangerment crimes ranging from simple DUIs with children present, and as complex as the hot-car death just described. Ninaz always approaches her clients’ cases – in particular those involving child abuse and child endangerment – with compassion and insight, as she understands the potential devastation a conviction can have on the affected family.