Readers keep asking me: "Am I breaking the law?" That question sprang to many a mind after Friday's column about a 43-year-old Peoria woman who'd left her 5-year-old niece unattended in her car while inside Best Buy. The woman has been charged with a misdemeanor, endangering the life or health of a child. Ever since, some readers wonder if they are breaking any laws by doing something similar. In such scenarios, the laws are clear in many aspects, but ambiguous on others.
Readers keep asking me: "Am I breaking the law?"
That question sprang to many a mind after Friday's column about a 43-year-old Peoria woman who'd left her 5-year-old niece unattended in her car while the woman was inside Best Buy. The woman has been charged with a misdemeanor, endangering the life or health of a child. Ever since, some readers wonder if they are breaking any laws by doing something similar - such as by leaving a kid inside an auto while running into a gas station or convenience store. In such scenarios, the laws are clear in many aspects, but ambiguous on others.
First, let's look at the situation at Best Buy. It seems addressed on-point by state statutes.
The aunt says she was in the store for an hour, asking for help at the service desk regarding a busted Blu-ray player. The temperature outside was 11 degrees, minus-3 with wind chill.
She says the locked car's heat ran most of the time she was inside the store - though the exact length of heat time is unclear. She says she checked on the child four or five times, leaving her alone only once for as long as 15 minutes. She says she could watch the child through window.
Police say otherwise. They say she could not have seen the car from the service desk. And some employees say she did not leave the store more than one time.
If the police version is correct, the law seems obvious. Endangering the life or health of a child involves an adult who would "willfully cause or permit the life or health of a child under the age of 18 to be endangered or to willfully cause or permit a child to be placed in circumstance that endanger the child's life or health."
In the case of a little kid, the law gets specific: "There is a ... presumption that a person committed the offense if he or she left a child 6 years of age or younger unattended in a motor vehicle for more than 10 minutes." By law, "unattended" is defined as being unaccompanied by a person 14 years or older, or being out of site of a person 14 or older.
At Best Buy, the 5-year-old was alone in the car - at least once - for 15 minutes. And police say the aunt couldn't see her. That seems open and shut.
The misdemeanor is punishable by up to a year in jail and $1,000 fine. Subsequent offenses become a felony.
Meanwhile, here is a reflection of what many readers had to say:
- "I have a 6-year-old son and would never ever leave him in the car by himself! Doors locked or not, if someone wants to get inside bad enough, they'll smash the windows."
- "Go ask John Walsh how long it took for his son to be abducted."
- "You NEVER leave a child in a car, running, locked, or whatever."
As to the last comment, the law sees things differently. Thank goodness.
I recall many times driving with my then-infant daughter and spotting the fuel tank on empty. So I stopped for gas. Taking her in and out of the car seat was an ordeal. And many times, the weather was cold.
At the time (mid-'90s), not all gas stations took credit cards at the pump. So I'd have to run in - just for a minute or two - to pay. During the entire time, I kept my eye on my kid and the locked car.
Is it possible that a kidnapper could have popped out of nowhere and abducted her? I guess. But that hardly ever happens.
Area police rarely get calls like the one at Best Buy. Apparently, situations like that are rare, says Steve Patelli, the prosecutor who handles indictments for the Peoria County State's Attorney's Office.
He says he can understand - even from a child-welfare standpoint - why a parent would leave a child behind while dashing in and out of a gas station or convenience store, especially in the winter.
"If it's 10 below, is it better to take the kid into that weather? Or leave the kid in the car?" he says.
Most of the county's child-endangerment cases come when parents leave their kids unattended not in cars, but homes.
"The parents say they're going down the block to go to the store, but don't come back," Patelli says.
After a child (or relative or neighbor who gets wind of such behavior) calls the cops, absent parents often blame a nameless baby sitter who mysteriously failed to show up. Uh-huh, right.
Anyway, as for the kid-in-the-car issue: If you pop into a store for just a couple of minutes, you're probably within the law. Then again, your biggest threat might not be kidnappers, but car thieves.
As Patelli says, "In Peoria, you wouldn't want to leave your car running, regardless of who is in it. If you leave your car running, it'll get stolen."
Peoria Journal Star columnist Phil Luciano can be reached at (309) 686-3155 or firstname.lastname@example.org. This column is the opinion of the writer and not of the newspaper.