Review of Penal Code 273a PC Child Endangerment Charges and Defenses
Penal Code 273a PC describes California's child endangerment crime as willfully placing a child in an endangering situation likely to produce the child's great bodily harm or death.
The statute also includes language prohibiting exposing a child under 18 to unjustifiable pain, suffering, or danger.
An example of child endangerment involves a situation where you leave a loaded firearm easily accessible to a child.
Put simply, this statute has strict restrictions that prevent adults from putting kids in danger.
PC 273a is a complex statute permitting endangerment charges under several alternatives and these charges are often directly related to domestic violence.
Anyone who has been arrested, charged, and convicted of violating the child endangerment laws are facing jail time, fines, and court-ordered counseling.
The specific penalties for a conviction, however, will depend on whether the risk to the child included great bodily injury (GBI) or death.
To help readers gain a better understanding of the law, our Los Angeles criminal defense lawyer will review below.
What is the Legal Definition of PC 273a Child Endangerment?
The statute's key subsection (a) defines the more serious form of child endangerment, in which the crime can be either a misdemeanor or felony (wobbler), as follows:
- “Anyone who, having care of a child, under circumstances likely to produce great bodily harm or death, willfully causes or permits a child to suffer, or inflicts unjustifiable physical pain or mental suffering, or permits the health of that child to be injured, or placed in a situation where their health is endangered, shall be punished in county jail or a state prison.”
Based on this definition above, you could face prosecution for child endangerment under any of the following circumstances:
- placing a child in any situation that can cause them great bodily harm;
- willfully permitting or causing any a child to suffer or be injured;
- causing unjustifiable physical pain or mental suffering on a child;
- putting a child in a situation that endangers their health.
Readers should that note the term “great bodily injury” is described as a significant or substantial injury.
In most cases, child endangerment allegations are against a parent of the child, but the laws apply to any adult, such as a babysitter, who has care or custody of the child.
What About Children Who Are Under 8 Years Old?
Penal Code 273ab PC defines the crime of child endangerment that applies to younger children.
This statute has stricter punishments for adults who put children under eight years old in danger. It states:
- “Anyone who has care or custody of a child under eight years of age, who assaults them by force that a reasonable person would be likely to produce great bodily injury, resulting in the death of the child.”
PC 273ab establishes some acts committed against a child under eight are crimes in California, including assaulting them to a level that can cause great bodily injury, or the child becoming comatose due to a brain injury or suffering paralysis.
Misdemeanor Child Endangerment
Penal Code 273a(b) adds a misdemeanor form of the child endangerment crime.
The misdemeanor form removes the likely to produce great bodily harm or death element of subsection (a)'s more serious child endangerment form.
The misdemeanor form only requires that the defendant had placed the child “where his or her person or health may be endangered,” without specifying a higher degree of potential injury.
If the situation bears health risks, but not risks of great bodily harm or death, then the prosecution would be under this misdemeanor-only form.
What Are Typical Child Endangerment Situations?
Common child endangerment situations include:
- when a parent operates a motor vehicle under the influence of drugs or alcohol, while transporting a child, or leaves a child alone for an extended time in an extremely hot or cold vehicle;
- when a parent, custodian, or another caretaker in the home leaves the child alone and unsupervised, with unsecured guns and drugs, and dangerous strangers, in the home;
- when a parent or custodian abandons a child at a public location where strangers, motor vehicles, and other serious injury risks are present, such as a commercial, industrial, or construction site location; and
- when a person in control of the child commits a crime of domestic violence, crime of drug making or sale, crime of property theft or destruction involving safety risks, or illicit sexual acts, in the child's presence.
Who Are the Usual Defendants?
As noted, child endangerment charges are often against the child's parent or custodian.
Penal Code 273a authorizes endangerment charges for those “having the care or custody of any child….” Yet Penal Code 273a has an alternative form of the endangerment crime in which the defendant need only “willfully cause or permit any child” to suffer endangerment.
Thus, the defendant need not necessarily be the child's parent or even have the child's custody or control.
The defendant need only have willfully placed the child in the endangering situation.
Non-custodial family members, friends, and even neighbors or strangers could potentially face endangerment charges for conduct willfully exposing a child to endangerment risks.
What are the Related Crimes?
Child endangerment differs from California's child abuse crime under Penal Code 273d, in which the defendant injures the child.
- child abuse causing death, brain injury, or paralysis, under Penal Code 273ab;
- cruel or unusual corporal punishment of a child resulting in injury or trauma, under Penal Code 273d PC, known as child abuse;
- failure to provide care defined under Penal Code 270 PC, which is commonly known as child neglect;
- employing a minor for delivery to houses of prostitution and ill repute, under Penal Code 273e PC;
- neglect or abuse of elders, under Penal Code 368 PC;
- criminal threats against an immediate family member, under Penal Code 422 PC;
- lewd acts with a minor defined under Penal Code 288 PC;
- driving under the influence under Vehicle Code 23152 VC.
What are the Punishments?
As the above quote of Penal Code 273a shows, prosecutors can charge child endangerment as either a misdemeanor or a wobbler misdemeanor or felony, depending on the circumstances.
Misdemeanor child endangerment results in a sentence from probation up to one year in the county jail.
Courts punish felony child endangerment by sentences of two, four, or six years in prison.
Under Penal Code 273a, probation with no jail typically requires a minimum of forty-eight months and other conditions:
- completing a one-year child abuse counseling program,
- protective order, exclusion from residence, or a full stay-away order prohibiting any contact with the victim.
- regular testing for drug or alcohol.
A conviction for a PC 273ab are more severe and could result in 25 years to life in prison when it involves a child's death.
If a child's injuries result in them being paralyzed or comatose, then the defendant can be sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole.
If the child sustained a great bodily injury, then the defendant might receive a sentencing enhancement.
Finally, a felony conviction will result in a strike under California's three strikes law.
Defenses to Child Endangerment Charges
If you have been charged with violating California's child endangerment laws, there are some valid common defenses, such as
- innocence to a fabricated report,
- no willfulness but only an unforeseeable accident,
- reasonable child discipline, and
- the reasonable exercise of parental or custodial control.
Further, we might also be able to argue constitutional rights against unreasonable search and seizure, to counsel, and against self-incrimination can also affect the prosecution of child endangerment charges.
Negotiation with the District Attorney's Office could be possible to get the charges reduced or even dropped.
Through a legal process that is known as prefiling intervention, we might be able to negotiate with the filing deputy to avoid the formal filing of criminal charges before court.
Eisner Gorin LLP is based in Los Angeles County and you can contact us for an initial confidential consultation at (310) 328-3776.