Parental Criminal Liability

No parent wants to get the call that their child is under arrest for a crime. News of mass shootings and neighborhood feuds are hitting the news cycle with more frequency. 

Computer hacking crimes may get more attention today than crimes involving alcohol and drug abuse or shoplifting. Parents know that early involvement with the criminal justice system can put kids on the wrong track. It can likely follow them into adulthood.

A growing and real concern is that parents themselves may also be held criminally liable for the acts of their children. Efforts at criminalizing parental negligence in more circumstances should lead to more family conferences at the kitchen table. Parents and children need to know when a child's criminal act may place parental rights and a parent's liberty in jeopardy.

Parental criminal liability should not be confused with parental civil liability. Civil parental liability laws provide that parents may be liable for monetary damages for property damage or personal injury caused by their minor child. A person is a minor until they reach the age of majority. In most states, this is 18 years old. Civil liability statutes operate under the theory of vicarious liability set forth in the common law. Basically, parents assume control and provide direction to their children much like employers supervise their employees. So, parents can be held responsible for their children's torts (wrongful acts).

Criminal liability for parents occurs when parents engage in gross negligence in the supervision of their child. It may also happen when a parent or legal guardian acts or fails to act in a way that promotes the child's delinquent acts. Criminal laws related to parents vary from state to state. Below is a brief discussion of the key areas related to parental criminal liability.

Parental Criminal Liability for Firearms Access

School shootings and other mass shootings have raised awareness of the easy access to firearms for Americans of all ages. In certain cases, where the shooters were minor children, many have questioned parental liability for the child's acts.

Although some parents have faced criminal charges for permitting child access to firearms, the majority have not. Police and prosecutors may look beyond violations of firearms access laws and seek to hold parents accountable more broadly for these heinous crimes when there is strong evidence. Recently, a Virginia grand jury indicted a mother with felony and misdemeanor charges for failing to prevent her 6-year-old child's access to a loaded gun. He later shot his teacher at school. In Michigan, an appeals court ruled that criminal charges against the parents of a high school shooter could proceed to trial. The parents face charges of involuntary manslaughter for the four children who were killed by their son.

Some state laws make it a crime for parents to provide children access to firearms under certain circumstances. These laws prohibit unsafe storage of a loaded firearm in a way that allows a child to obtain access. These child access protection laws (CAP laws) may include greater punishment if a child injures someone or causes a death. Other state laws carve out exceptions where parental liability may not apply. For example, criminal liability may not exist when a child breaks into a home and obtains a firearm that was properly stored. Another exception to criminal liability may arise if a child uses the weapon in self-defense.

In addition, several states bestow parental criminal liability on a parent or adult guardian who knows a child has illegal possession of a gun and doesn't take it away.

In jurisdictions where it is a crime to leave a loaded firearm accessible to children, these laws typically apply—and parents can be charged—only if the minor gains access to the gun. There are usually exceptions if the parent stores the gun in a locked box or secures it with a trigger lock. In most states, the penalty for unlawful access is a misdemeanor. A felony charge may apply when the child injures someone.

Recent legal changes in two states provide examples of criminal liability in this area:

New York: In 2019, New York State revised the safe storage gun law in its penal code to require firearm owners to securely lock up their firearms if they live with (or can expect a visit from) someone who is under 16 years of age. New York law had previously required firearm owners to securely lock up their firearms when they lived with someone who was prohibited from possessing them. For example, the owner lived with someone with a felony conviction. Under the current law, failing to lock up the firearm to prevent child access can result in a Class A misdemeanor. An offender can face up to one year in jail or a fine of $1,000.

Colorado: in 2021, Colorado amended its firearm safety laws to address child access and safe storage concerns. Current law makes it a felony offense to intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly provide a handgun to anyone under the age of 18. Liability extends to situations where the gun owner knows or has reason to know that a minor child possesses the gun or will commit a felony and takes no reasonable actions to prevent the possession or the crime. The law also provides a misdemeanor offense when a firearm owner transfers or sells a long gun to a minor child or permits unsupervised possession of a long gun without parental consent. A firearm owner commits a misdemeanor offense when they fail to responsibly store their firearm in a secure manner and/or reasonably know a minor child has access and no parental permission.

Internet Access and Computer Hacking

Another parental criminal liability issue involves certain unlawful computer and internet activities committed by minors. In 2003, The Recording Industry Association of America sued 261 persons for downloading protected music onto their personal computers. It alleged copyright infringement. Among the defendants were several surprised parents who had no knowledge of their minor child's downloading activities.

In Thrifty-Tel v. Bezenek, the California Court of Appeals upheld a verdict against the parents of juvenile computer hackers. The juveniles accessed the phone company's network and made long-distance calls without cost.

In the early 2000s, camera cellphones and computer video cameras grew in popularity. This increased the opportunity for minors to distribute or sell pornographic images of themselves or others. Unfortunately, juvenile crimes of sexting and cyberbullying have become more prevalent.

The use of the internet, computers, and social media to commit various crimes has only increased in subsequent years. State liability laws have raced to keep up with the trends. It is unclear how often the criminal justice system has prosecuted parents or other family members regarding these crimes.

State investigative offices have improved their ability to detect computer and telecommunications crime. They often assist local law enforcement who may not have the computer-focused resources in a given case. Computer forensic evidence may provide support for charging juveniles and their parents when it demonstrates parental knowledge of criminal activity.

Parental Criminal Liability for Delinquent Youth

Although some states impose criminal liability on parents of delinquent youth, many more have enacted less stringent types of parental responsibility laws. Some states require parents to attend the hearings of children adjudicated delinquent. If they do not, they may face contempt charges. Some state laws require parents to pay the court costs associated with these proceedings. Other states impose financial responsibility on parents for the state costs. This may include costs of processing their children through the juvenile justice system.

Contributing to the Delinquency Statutes

Most states have laws that allow an adult with control over a child to be charged with a separate crime of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Such laws make it a crime for a parent, legal guardian, or other custodian of a child to aid or encourage a child to become delinquent. States may define delinquency differently. A child's acts may be delinquent when they mirror criminal acts by an adult, such as theft, assault, or vandalism. A child's acts may also be delinquent when they involve status offenses. Status offenses are acts that are only illegal when committed by minors. Examples include truancy, running away from home, violating curfew, and purchasing or possessing alcohol or cigarettes.

In most states, a charge of contributing to the delinquency of a minor is a misdemeanor crime. In Colorado, this charge will be a class 4 felony if the action of the child in question is a "felony victim rights act" crime. This includes most violent crimes under the state penal code.

Laws Requiring Parents to Exercise Control Over a Child

Some parents claim that they were not aware of the actions of their children. They may deny that they took any step to encourage delinquent acts. Under certain state laws, an overt act or awareness is not required. These states make it a misdemeanor crime when a parent or legal guardian does not "exercise" reasonable care, control, or supervision of a minor child. In California, the courts have upheld the broad language of such statutes.

More Questions About Parental Criminal Liability? Talk to a Lawyer

Nothing can be more discouraging than facing the prospect of a child's engagement in juvenile crime. If the facts demonstrate that a parent encouraged or took no act to prevent the child's misconduct, the parent may face criminal charges. Of course, each state's law is different. If you have concerns about parental criminal liability, consider speaking with an attorney experienced in criminal defense. You can reach out to a criminal law attorney in your area.

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  • Parental liability laws are different in every state
  • Liability cases are complex and a skilled attorney is essential
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Don't Forget About Estate Planning

If you are in the midst of a parental rights or liability case, it may be an ideal time to create or change your estate planning forms. Take the time to add new beneficiaries to your will and name a guardian for any minor children. Consider creating a financial power of attorney so your agent can pay bills and make sure your children are provided for. A health care directive explains your health care decisions and takes the decision-making burden off your children when they become adults.

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