When Is an Accident a Crime and When Should Parents Be Charged?

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The Web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System (WISQARS) from the CDC lists unintentional injuries (accidents) as the leading cause of death for children and adolescents in most age groups.

The only exception is for younger children under 12 months old, for whom accidents are the 5th leading cause of death. At this age, congenital anomalies, premature birth, maternal pregnancy complications, and SIDS rank higher than accidents as a cause of death. Still, 1,168 infants under the age of 12 months died because of accidents in 2018.

A Crime vs. An Accident

But when is an unintentional injury, such as a car accident, drowning, fall, or shooting accident a crime and not just an accident?

When these incidents are reported, they are usually described as tragic accidents. It is not often that you hear about a parent being charged with a crime. It does happen, though.

One famous incident involved Raquel Nelson of Marietta, Georgia. Her 4-year-old son was hit and killed while she crossed in the middle of a busy street at night with her three children. They had just gotten off a city bus and were crossing with other people, as the nearest crosswalk a third of a mile away and her apartment complex was across the street from the bus stop.

Raquel Nelson was initially charged with reckless conduct, crossing a roadway outside a crosswalk, and second-degree vehicular manslaughter, which put her at risk for three years of jail time total. Meanwhile, Jerry Guy, the driver of the car, was ultimately charged with hit and run and spent six months in jail.

The case was the subject of much controversy. Some people were indignant that the mother who lost her child might serve more jail time than the driver who had been drinking earlier in the day and killed her child. Other groups, such as the NAACP, criticized the fact that few members of the White, middle class jury had used public transportation and likely did not understand Nelson's choices as a Black single mother walking three children home at night.

Since Raquel Nelson's charges were all misdemeanors, the court was allowed to exercise discretion in sentencing. After years of legal battles, Nelson made a deal with the Cobb County Solicitor's Office. She pleaded no contest to the jaywalking charge and paid a $200 fine, and the other charges were dropped.

A case in Antioch, California also resulted in a milder sentence at the judge's discretion. Lindsey Ann Isch got four years' probation and community service, instead of jail time, after being convicted of vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, drunken driving causing injury, and child endangerment after she got into an accident that killed her 1-year-old son in 2009.

Other Charges

There have been many other charges being filed against mothers associated with kids in hot cars, although these have not gotten as much attention as the Raquel Nelson case.

It isn't just mothers who get charged, though. The father and step-grandfather of a 4-year-old boy who drowned in Wyoming were charged with aggravated homicide after their canoe crashed and flipped over. In addition to drinking, the men had been warned about canoeing in the fast running river.

Some of these cases highlight an important difference between an accident and a crime. The two mothers who were shopping intentionally left their children, one who was as young as 4 weeks old, in a hot car with the windows up and the air conditioner turned off. They knew their kids were in the car and should have known that they were at risk from the heat. The men in the canoe were drinking alcohol and ignored a warning.

What about the case in Virginia? In this case, too, there does seem to be some extra circumstances that could possibly be relevant. It seems that she had previously left her child in her car outside work in January, but he was discovered about a half hour later when her daycare provider called to ask if he would be coming that day.

And the two cases in South Texas? The charges seem to be related to the fact that the mothers lost track of their toddlers for several hours. A similar argument was used by the Deputy District Attorney in Las Vegas where a mother was recently sentenced to 24 to 60 months after her 2-year-old drowned in a backyard pool, saying that "an accident is when a mother loses track of a child for five minutes, not five hours."

But it takes much less than five minutes for a child to drown, fall out of a window, or find a locked gun, so why should that be criteria for whether an accident is caused by neglect?

Negligence

These cases raise a lot of questions. Why are some parents charged with crimes after accidents when many others aren't? Why do only some types of accidents seem to trigger charges? What is the point of charging parents with a crime after an accident?

Negligence, typically defined as "failure to exercise the care that a reasonably prudent person would exercise in like circumstances," is one of the factors that are typically used to determine if something is more than a simple accident. Unfortunately, people have different ideas of what negligence is. Many parents think it is negligent to have a pool without a fence around it or to have a loaded gun in the house, while others don't think twice about these hazards.

The bigger discussion though should likely be on how to reduce these accidents and tragedies. Spread the word about securing guns, locking cars so that kids can't get inside and die in the heat, the importance of childproofing the house and pool, using window guards, and having kids wear Coast Guard-approved life jackets when they are near the water and don't know how to swim, etc.

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Article Sources
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  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 10 Leading Causes of Death by Age Group, United States - 2018.

  2. NPR Staff. Child's death casts light on pedestrian traffic woes. NPR. Published July 30, 2011.

  3. Cornell Law School. Negligence. 2021.