People v Haveman,
COA Docket No. 344825
May 30, 2019 – FOR PUBLICATION
MCL 750.135a makes it a misdemeanor that is punishable by up to 93 days in jail and a $500 fine for “a person who is responsible for the care or welfare of a child [under 6 years of age]” to “leave that child in a vehicle for a period of time that poses an unreasonable risk of harm or injury to the child or under circumstances that pose an unreasonable risk of harm or injury to the child.” Under the same statute, if the child is harmed or killed, the penalty can be as much 15 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
In Haveman, the defendant was accused of parking her car in a Wal-Mart parking lot with her two children, aged three and five, for approximately an hour. However, she told police officers that she believed that she had only been in the store for 10 to 15 minutes. According to the defendant, she did not realize how long she had been in the store because of the effects of her medication.
Before trial, the defendant’s lawyer argued that she should be allowed to argue that she did not intend to leave her leave her children unattended for such a prolonged period. The prosecutor insisted that her intent did not matter, because the statute presents a strict liability offense.
The Michigan Court of Appeals held that, even though the statute does not specifically reference intent, it nonetheless codifies a general intent crime. So, according to the Court, the prosecutor’s contention of strict liability was wrong. A general intent crime is one in which a person “inten[ds] to do the illegal act.” Thus, to violate MCL 750.135a, one must have intended to leave a child in a vehicle for an unsafe period of time or under unsafe conditions.
The Court noted that there are circumstances in which strict liability makes sense. However, these circumstances are uncommon and “strict liability for a criminal offense is disfavored.” Thus, the Court looked at several factors, including the history of the statute, the severity of the punishment, and the severity of potential harm to the public, and concluded that MCL 750.135a was not an example of the exceptional strict liability criminal offense.
The outcome of this case is not that the defendant is necessarily deemed not guilty. Rather, it is for a jury to decide both whether the jury believes that she left her children unattended for an unsafe period of time and whether she intended to leave her children unattended for an unsafe period of time.
Regardless of what ultimately happens in this case, it is generally unwise to leave young children or animals unattended in a vehicle. Whether you intend to be away for 5 minutes or an hour, it is better to err on the side of caution and take your children with you.
However, if you have been charged with a crime involving your children, whether a minor misdemeanor as in this case or a serious felony, such as child abuse, we are experienced criminal defense lawyers who can help you. For more information, see our criminal defense page.
If you or a loved one have been convicted of a crime involving your children, we may be able to help with that as well. Our appeals lawyer is experienced with cases involving children and is passionate about defending our clients in post-conviction proceedings. For more information, please visit our felony appeals page.