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Child Restraints and Safety Belts 

Potential Criminal Liability

Law enforcement and prosecutors can play an important role in ensuring compliance with restraint laws through effective enforcement and appropriate sanctions. Under appropriate circumstances, prosecutors should consider charging parents or guardians who fail to buckle their children with child endangerment or other offenses.

In Suarez v. State, 2003 Tex. App. LEXIS 10799 (Tx. App. December 30, 2003), the defendant placed her daughter in the back seat of her car and drove home. There was a factual dispute as to whether the defendant buckled the child; however, witnesses testified that the child knew how to unbuckle herself. Thirty minutes later, the defendant arrived home and noticed that the child was not in the car. Apparently, the child fell out of the car as it crossed a bridge. Another car struck the child, who eventually died from head injuries. The state charged the defendant with reckless endangerment and secured a conviction after trial by jury. The trial judge sentenced the defendant to two years in prison. On appeal, the court found “a reasonable trier of fact could have found that Suarez’s reckless failure to supervise A.E. as to her seatbelt, an omission, placed A.E. in imminent danger of death, bodily injury, or physical or mental impairment beyond a reasonable doubt.” Similarly, a court had little difficulty affirming the legality of a defendant’s sentence for criminally negligent homicide in State v. Simpson, after the defendant crashed his truck, killing his unrestrained 11-month-old son. 2005 Tenn. Crim. App. LEXIS 19 ( Tenn. Crim. App. January 7, 2005), rehearing denied, 2005 Tenn. Crim. App. LEXIS 286 ( Tenn. Crim. App. Mar. 28, 2005).

However, in State v. Jones, 151 S.W.3d 494 ( Tenn. 2004), the court ruled that a passenger’s conduct in holding her 2-year-old child in her lap was not a gross deviation from ordinary care under the facts of this case. The court reasoned that adult drivers routinely fail to safely restrain child passengers. The court cited a recent survey finding that only 60 percent of child passengers were restrained and that State law “permitted a mother to remove her child from its car seat to nurse the child or to ‘attend to its other physiological needs.’”11 Likewise, in State v. Mitchell, 41 S.W.3d 434 ( Ky. 2001), the court held that the defendant’s failure to buckle his young daughter who was killed in a car crash did not amount to manslaughter. The court reasoned that if the legislature “recognized that failure to restrain did not constitute civil negligence per se, then the violation could not satisfy the gross deviation requirement of recklessness.”

In October 2005, an Angelina County, Texas, court held a woman accountable in an automobile crash that resulted in the death of her 1-month-old son who was not properly restrained in the vehicle. The woman forgot the child’s car seat and let a friend hold the child in her lap while a 14-year-old, unlicensed, uninsured driver drove the vehicle. The car slammed into an oncoming pickup truck and rolled over, killing the boy. The woman pleaded guilty to negligent homicide charges and was sentenced to a deferred three-year prison sentence and is required to attend parenting classes and submit to drug testing as a part of her probation.12

Again, prosecutors should consider the totality of circumstances in determining whether to file criminal charges in terms of child endangerment or neglect. Considerations should include those described above and others, including:

  • The child’s age;
  • The child’s height and weight;
  • The child’s location in the car;
  • The restraints used, if any;
  • The length of the trip;
  • Vehicle speed; and
  • The roads traveled and to be traveled.

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11 The Simpson majority wrote that the case was “distinguishable” from Jones. The court did not explain how the cases were different, but one may presume that the court based its ruling on the fact that the defendant in Simpson was the driver and caused the crash while the defendant in Jones was a passenger. The value of this “distinction” is questionable in light of the Jones rationale. In a separate concurring opinion, Judge Williams indicated that he was “unable to find any material distinction between the two cases.” Simpson, 20005 Tenn. Crim. App. LEXIS 19 ( Tenn. Crim. App. January 7, 2005).

12 “Mother gets probation in death of child,” The Lufkin Daily News, October 2, 2005, www.lufkindailynews.com/hp/content/news/stories/2005/10/02/20051002LDNcourt.html.

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