cover icon white background

Unattended Children and Cars 

Potential Criminal Liability

Despite the technological “solutions” to the above risks, the issue remains one of parental guidance and supervision. In appropriate cases, prosecutors should consider child endangerment or manslaughter charges.

In People v. Stansell, 2004 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 6745 ( Cal. Ct. App. July 20, 2004),43 a security guard found a 19-month-old child in a parked car outside a shopping mall in California. The guard summoned the police, and an officer responded with a tow truck operator. They entered the car and removed the child. The officer noted that the child’s “cheek was warm and wet against [the officer’s] neck, her hair was wet and matted to her forehead, and she was sweating. [Her] face was dirty, her clothing appeared to be covered with dried food and mucous….” The officer subsequently located the defendant, the child’s mother, and questioned her. The mother admitted leaving the child in the car and she said that she did not expect to be in the mall very long. She indicated that she locked the windows and doors to protect the child. She was arrested and charged with one count of felony child endangerment. A jury acquitted the defendant of the more serious felony child endangerment count, but found her guilty of the lesser included offense of misdemeanor child endangerment. The appellate court affirmed. See alsoState v. Kolzow, 703 N.E.2d 424 (Ill. Ct. App. 1998) (upholding the defendant’s conviction and sentence for involuntary manslaughter in a case where the defendant’s three-month-old son died from heat stroke after she left him alone in a car for four hours); People v. Mitchell, 1998 Mich. App. LEXIS 1772 (Mich. Ct. App. June 19, 1998) (unpublished opinion) (upholding the defendant’s conviction for involuntary manslaughter in a case where the defendant’s nine-month-old child died after the defendant left the baby unattended in a car for over three hours); Ducker v. State, 27 S.W.2d 889 (Tenn. 2000), cert. denied, 531 U.S. 1197 (2001) (upholding the defendant’s conviction for aggravated child abuse where the defendant’s two children died after the defendant left them in a car for nine hours); Randall v. Dunbar, Commissioner of DCF, 2004 Conn. Super. LEXIS 3831 ( Conn. Super. Ct. December 29, 2004) (unpublished opinion); Lindsay v. Dept. Soc. Serv., 791 N.E.2d 866 (Ma. 2003).

In State v. Voland, 716 N.E.2d 299 (Ohio County Court 1999), the defendant drove her 4-year-old daughter and her 12-year-old cousin to a park, where the defendant played volleyball while her cousin watched her daughter. The defendant gave her cousin car keys so that the cousin and the young girl could get into the car, start the air conditioning, and cool off. The two children got into the car. The 4-year-old inadvertently put the car in gear. The car struck a fence post, which fell on a man, killing him. The state charged the defendant with manslaughter and child endangerment. The court noted, “Children of this age can easily operate an automatic shift automobile but have very little experience in controlling powerful and potentially dangerous instrumentality. Luckily the children were unhurt, but nevertheless, such omissions and lack of supervision placed the 12-year-old child’s safety at substantial risk in that there was a strong possibility that out of boredom this car would eventually be put in gear.” Thus, the court had no difficulty determining that the defendant was reckless and found the defendant guilty of child endangerment. However, the court found the defendant not guilty of manslaughter because the court believed that the 4-year-old child’s action was unforeseeable.

As these cases reflect, prosecutors should consider the totality of circumstances in determining whether to file charges. Considerations include:

  • the child’s age, maturity level, and physical prowess (including the ability to protect himself or herself);
  • the relationship between the child and the guardian;
  • the guardian’s age and experience with children;
  • prior cases or reports of neglect or abuse;
  • the extent (or lack) of supervision;
  • the location of the vehicle;
  • the exposure to (including the foreseeability of) harm;
  • possible excuses; and
  • the actual harm inflicted (if any).


43 Note that LexisNexis “red-flagged” this case for unknown reasons. Additionally, the court did not certify the case for publication so it has no precedential value. We present it here for informative purposes only.