Hot Car Homicide: How Should Parents Be Prosecuted?
By Lisa Bruno, Faculty Member, Legal Studies at American Public University
Headlines this summer have been filled with a rash of infant and child deaths after being left in a hot car. How should parents be prosecuted in these cases?
There are 19 states that have laws regarding children being left unattended in a vehicle, but none of them specify how a parent should be prosecuted if the infant or child dies. Should parents be charged with negligent homicide or should they be charged with murder? Could such an incident truly be just an accident?
Many wonder if enough is being done to prevent hot car deaths. Many companies are currently working on devices and infant seats that sound an alarm if an infant or a child is in the back seat as the driver exits the car. In the meantime, would more stringent laws and stronger penalties make parents more accountable? Or is it unfair for a parent who has lost a child to have to do prison time for what they may claim was an accident?
Some legal scholars believe such incidents rise to the level of negligence, but should not be considered and prosecuted as murder. However, many states have charged parents with murder when death results. Is a life sentence or the death penalty appropriate in these cases?
In such cases, if there is no malice aforethought, the elements of first degree murder cannot be met. Many argue that the parent should be prosecuted for negligent homicide, which usually accompanies a 5 to 7 year sentence. Is the penalty of negligent homicide sufficient enough for the crime?
My Opinion on Hot Car Homicide
As a single mother to a 9-year-old daughter, I can honestly say I have never left her or forgotten her anywhere. I also have never left her unattended in a vehicle.
I juggle a full-time career with being a full-time mother. I endure stress all the time as an attorney and I also get over-tired like any other person. I’ve been caring alone for my daughter since she was 3 months old. The thought never came across my mind to leave her unattended in a car. So, personally, I find it unconscionable.
Professionally, I believe each case is unique. Some cases merit negligent homicide where there might not have been intent by a parent to leave the child. This to me is involuntary manslaughter.
I have seen cases where parents leave a child in the car with the windows up and doors locked and think it is okay to go run into a store. Depending on the state, if a death results, this can rise to the level of murder or merely be negligent homicide. It is very unlikely, even in these cases that parents will be charged with first degree murder because prosecutors must prove there was premeditation with intent to kill.
As more and more deaths continue to happen, states will have to address this issue. New laws will need to be implemented and technology will have to play a role in the prevention of infant and child deaths in the future.
For more information on this topic and recent cases please view the stories below:
- Georgia dad indicted on murder charges in son’s hot car death Prosecution will not seek death penalty in Georgia hot car death
- Hospital CEO Leaves Child to Die in Hot Car
- Collin County man goes on trial for hot-car death of son
- Walmart announces infant car seat designed to prevent hot car deaths
About the Author: Lisa Bruno is a faculty member with the legal studies program at American Public University. She earned her J.D. degree from the Massachusetts School of Law. Her legal career began more than 20 years ago when she worked as a caseworker advocating for inmates and later as a probation officer for the trial court supervising criminal offenders. Bruno subsequently became a criminal defense and immigration attorney. She has taught criminal justice and law courses for the past 15 years.
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