Florida – the “sunshine state” known for its tropical climate – is one of the most popular destinations, for retirees and vacationers alike. In the winter, “snowbirds” travel to Florida to avoid harsh winters. For those who live in Florida year-round, summer is okay too; Florida natives have learned to tolerate Florida’s high heat indexes and humidity in exchange for living in paradise.
Unfortunately, along with high temperatures come accidents and corresponding heat-related criminal charges. Specifically, laws against leaving children and pets in the car are enforced with the same intensity as the weather itself. This is because leaving kids and pets in a hot vehicle in Florida is extremely dangerous and can result in a tragedy in a matter of minutes. Statistics say that around 40 children die a year in hot cars. Familiarize yourself with the law and your options in order to avoid citations, criminal charges or the death of loved ones.
Is it ever ok to leave a child in a car unattended?
Grocery store trips and errands become a challenging task once you add pets and children to the mix. Still, Florida law has no sympathy for multitasking struggles. According to Florida Statute section 316.6135, leaving a child under the age of six (6) unattended or unsupervised in a motor vehicle is illegal if “the health of the child is in danger, or the child appears to be in distress.” With the potential for hot temperatures in Florida year-round, this law effectively means almost never leaving your young child in a car alone. Additionally, even if the child is not in danger or distress, Florida law prohibits leaving a child younger than 6 alone in a vehicle for more than fifteen (15) minutes. A violation Florida Statute section 316.6135 can range from a noncriminal traffic infraction, punishable by a fine of $500, to a third degree felony, punishable by 5 years in prison and a $5000 fine. A felony charge arises when the parent or guardian’s actions resulted in great bodily harm. Furthermore, if the act of leaving a child in a car results in death, the alleged offender can face a negligent homicide charge.
With the focus on Florida’s sweltering heat, parents may rationalize that they can leave their children unattended as long as the car and AC are running. The fact is, leaving a child in the car with the vehicle running presents a different kind of danger, and Florida law recognizes this. Children are not to be unsupervised for any period of time if the motor vehicle’s engine is running. This offense is normally charged as a traffic infraction but can escalate to a felony if the parent or guardian causes great bodily harm to the child.
Aggravating Factors – Higher Charges
Whether a caregiver intentionally or inadvertently leaves a child unattended in a car, the accused may be subject to a multitude of other charges such as child neglect, child abuse, endangering a child, or, as mentioned earlier, even homicide. Elevated charges and enhancements occur when the facts are particularly egregious, when the accused has a prior criminal record related to child abuse, or when the child suffers serious bodily injury or death. As expected, higher charges expose the defendant to harsher sentencing and even the possibility of a DCF investigation that could affect child custody.
A person accused of leaving a child unattended should hire an experienced criminal defense attorney to prepare a strong defense. Although the burden of proof is always on the government to prove a defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, the accused should take active steps to take apart the prosecution’s case. Some possible defenses for leaving a child unattended in a vehicle include:
- Time period – calling into question whether the child was alone for over 15 minutes
- State of the child – arguing that the child was not in danger or distress
- Parental responsibilities – showing that the accused was not the parent or guardian
In addition to the above-listed defenses, an experienced criminal defense attorney can present mitigating circumstances to the judge and prosecution to seek leniency in a plea or sentence. In some cases, the attorney may be able to negotiate a Deferred Prosecution Agreement, a pre-trial diversion agreement that allows for dismissal of charges in exchange for completion of certain terms such as community service, a donation to a charity, and/or taking a course regarding the subject matter of the violation.
Pets and Animals
Similar to children, pets cannot fend for themselves or effectively communicate. Leaving a pet in a car can be considered animal cruelty by Florida Law. The owner is not to place or confine an animal in an unattended vehicle without sufficient ventilation or under conditions which may endanger the health or well-being of the animal. Some of the conditions that may be a danger to an animal or pet can be heat, lack of water or any other circumstance which may cause suffering, disability or even death. Depending on the facts of the case you could be charged with anything from an infraction to a felony.
Contact an Attorney
We urge the community to take precautions to avoid a tragedy and a potential criminal charge. The safest decision is to not leave children or pets in cars for any amount of time. Our kids and pets are part of the vulnerable class and must accordingly receive extra care and protection.
However, if you find yourself carrying the weight of a criminal charge in addition to the guilt or grief you are already experiencing, call our Wellington Criminal Defense firm to help navigate your case. Casanova Law’s founding attorney, Lourdes Casanova, is a former prosecutor with experience in litigating criminal cases. We are prepared to fight for the best possible outcome in your case.