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‘Kaitlyn’s Law’: The Legal Repercussions of Leaving a Child Unattended in the Car

As temperatures rise going into spring and summer, so does the risk of vehicular hyperthermia for children left inside hot vehicles. Each year since 1998 an average of 38 children have died in hot cars in the U.S. Although these tragedies occur nationally, California is one of only 20 states that has addressed the issue formally. The law in California (Kaitlyn’s Law) holds that leaving a child unsupervised in a motor vehicle is a violation with a fine of one hundred dollars (CAL. VEH. CODE 15620).

(a) A parent, legal guardian, or other person responsible for a child who is 6 years of age or younger may not leave that child inside a motor vehicle without being subject to the supervision of a person who is 12 years of age or older, under either of the following circumstances:

(1) Where there are conditions that present a significant risk to the child’s health or safety.

(2) When the vehicle’s engine is running or the vehicle’s keys are in the ignition, or both.

So what constitutes a “significant risk to the child’s health or safety”? There isn’t a set outdoor temperature that establishes at what point leaving a child unsupervised in a vehicle is safe or unsafe. Cars heat up at a remarkable speed. The average vehicle can rise 20 degrees in interior temperature in just under 10 minutes. Even opening windows or parking in the shade does little to make a car cooler. The interior of a vehicle left in 80 plus degree heat can reach 120 degrees in less than an hour. This is important because the effects of heat stroke begin when the body passes 104 degrees internally, and becomes deadly at 107 degrees. Another issue is that the body temperatures of children can increase 3 to 5 times faster than the average adult. Therefore, even in seemingly mild weather it is not only ill advised, but in California, considered a significant risk to leave a child unsupervised in a motor vehicle.

When an “unattended child is injured or medical services are rendered on that child,” the penalty is more severe. Last week in Washington D.C., a couple pleaded guilty for leaving their two toddlers alone in their car while they attended a wine tasting around the corner. In D.C. there is no law regarding unattended children in vehicles. However, when “anyone knowingly or intentionally engages in conduct that places the health of a child in serious risk”, they can be charged “with an offense.” In this case, the children were checked by paramedics and were in good health, but had the parents actually gone to trial, rather than plead guilty, they could have faced a maximum sentence of one year in jail. If the situation outlined above occurred in California, the defendant could be arrested and charged with a violation of California Penal Code 273A and if found guilty of child endangerment, would face one year in county jail if filed as a misdemeanor, or two, four or six years in state prison, if filed as a felony.

Child endangerment is a serious criminal offense that is regularly charged in cases of leaving a child unattended in a car.  If you have any questions regarding any aspect of Kaitlyn’s Law, and/or, child endangerment, feel free to contact me and I will be happy to discuss this with you further.