Mountain Law: Is it against the law in Colorado to leave a child unattended in a motor vehicle?
Unlike some states, Colorado does not have a specific statute that addresses this issue. Putting aside the potential for local ordinances, the issue would probably be governed by the general child abuse statute, which provides, in pertinent part, as follows:
“A person commits child abuse if such person causes an injury to a child’s life or health, or permits a child to be unreasonably placed in a situation that poses a threat of injury to the child’s life or health. …”
This statute contemplates two different circumstances. The first circumstance is where the child is actually injured and where the parent is the cause of the injury. One might think that the parent would always be the cause of any injury to an unattended child. However, the legal meaning of cause requires that the injury flow as a natural consequence of the parent’s action. In practice, that would be highly fact dependent. For instance, if the parent left the child in the car for an hour on a hot day with the windows closed, the natural consequence would likely be injury to the child. But what if the child were struck by lightning sitting in the car? In some cases, legal causation is less clear.
The second circumstance under the statute is where the parent unreasonably places the child in a situation that poses a threat of injury. Some people no doubt believe that it is necessarily unreasonable to leave a child unattended, but there is no such hard and fast rule. Rather, reasonableness would be decided by the jury members who might have divergent views based on the facts of the case. Note that a parent can violate this part of the statute, and be guilty of child abuse, even if the child is not injured.
The child abuse statute technically applies to children under the age of 16 years, but that doesn’t mean leaving a younger child unattended is necessarily a crime. Some officials promote the age of 12 years as a guideline for when it might be appropriate for a child to be left alone for short periods of time. This guideline is based on the Colorado Child Labor Law, which deems 12 years as the minimum age for employment (such as for a babysitter). This guideline is not a law and also doesn’t necessarily mean that leaving a child less than 12 years of age unattended is a crime.
The penalty for violating the child abuse statute depends on whether death or injury resulted and the degree of intent with which any crime was committed. The highest penalty is a class 2 felony for knowingly or recklessly causing death or injury. The lowest penalty is a class 3 misdemeanor for a criminally negligent act that causes no death or injury.
The intent requirements raise some interesting issues. For just one, parents “knowingly” place their children in danger every day simply by strapping them into the car and driving out on the road. Should such parents be guilty of child abuse for knowing the risks of car accidents and exercising their judgment to expose their children to those risks anyway? If not, how is that different from parents knowing the risks associated with leaving a child unattended in a vehicle and exercising the judgment to do so for a short period of time? It is difficult to distinguish the two actions for purposes of the statute.
In sum, leaving a child unattended in a motor vehicle is not necessarily a crime in Colorado, but it could be if one of the two circumstances contemplated in the child abuse statute applies. There is little or no case law providing specific guidance about what conduct violates the statute.
Noah Klug is owner of The Klug Law Firm LLC, in Summit County, Colorado. He may be reached at (970) 468-4953 or Noah@TheKlugLawFirm.com.
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