Chapman Law Review


Leaving children unattended in vehicles is one of the leading causes of vehicle deaths not associated with a crash. Intended deaths that are purposefully caused via this phenomenon are quite rare. Rather, such fatalities are typically a result of a caregiver either forgetting a child in a vehicle or making a conscious decision to leave the child unattended without realizing the dangers attendant to that decision. Either way, the resultant harm sparks moral outrage in the media and the community. This, in turn, can prompt prosecution of caregivers under circumstances in which their actions may not align with the elements of the crimes with which they are charged.

This Article synthesizes the extant literature on the phenomenon of children left unattended in vehicles (“CLUV”) by examining the dangers associated with the behavior and both the prevalence and conditions under which the phenomenon occurs. The Article then analyzes the laws that some state legislatures enacted to curb the CLUV phenomenon, focusing on criminal legal responses. By conducting an original, mixed-method content analysis of cases from across the United States, the Article presents a typology of how courts adjudicate CLUV cases that include both pediatric hyperthermia fatalities and those in which children survived CLUV incidents. Qualitative analysis reveal three overarching themes in CLUV cases, including those that involve disputes regarding the sufficiency of the evidence (often focusing on mens rea), questions of statutory construction, and challenges to the collateral consequences of convictions. Quantitative analyses demonstrate that across these three themes, the prosecution prevails in CLUV cases by a ratio of more than two to one. This appears to be due, in part, to the fact that in roughly one out of every five cases, the caregiver’s actions were attendant to either being under the influence of alcohol or other drugs at the time of the CLUV incident or participating in other criminal behaviors. Nonetheless, the cases in the research sample had a 32.6% reversal rate for sufficiency of the evidence claims— a rate quadruple that of the national reversal rate for all other crimes challenged on appeal on such grounds. This finding, in turn, suggests that prosecutors should rethink their approaches to CLUV cases. Additionally, legislatures could take steps to clarify the elements of CLUV-related offenses. Toward that end, the Article offers a suggested statute that would address the questions raised in the cases analyzed in this research. Finally, the Article concludes by offering and alternative ways to address children being harmed while unattended in vehicles using both formal and informal social controls.



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