March 15, 2006
by Atty. Michael J. Masnica
Rizzo & Diersen, S.C.
I am occasionally asked by parents whether they can get into trouble for their child’s unlawful conduct. There are circumstances under which a parent may be civilly liable for monetary damages caused by their child. This article will discuss the more serious instances where a parent can be held criminally liable for the acts of their child.
Criminal liability arises only where there is a specific law that prohibits certain conduct. Generally, a person must make some conscious act or omission in order to commit a crime. This includes being a party to a crime, i.e., get-away driver, lookout, etc.
There is, of course, criminal liability for a parent, or any adult, who is involved in the commission of a crime by his or her child, even if it is the child who is directly committing the crime. Contributing to the delinquency of a minor is an example. That law forbids the intentional encouraging of or contributing to actions by a child which would naturally and probably lead to delinquency. “Contributing” may be a misdemeanor or a felony depending upon the act of the child and its consequences. Similarly, it is a crime to intentionally receive stolen property from a child and, unlike receiving stolen property from an adult, it is a felony in all cases. It is also a crime to knowingly encourage or contribute to a child’s truancy.
There is a law in juvenile delinquency cases which allows judges to order parents to comply with certain requirements deemed necessary for their child’s welfare. Disobedience of such an order can result in criminal contempt proceedings against the parent.
Penalties upon Parents for the Acts of Children
Certain statutes impose criminal penalties upon parents for the acts of children, regardless of the parent’s actual involvement. One example that we see in the news from time to time is the case where a parent leaves a firearm within the access of children. There is a law which makes it a misdemeanor to store or leave a firearm within the reach or easy access of a child under 14 years old where the child does not have lawful authority from a parent or guardian to obtain the firearm, and (1) the gun discharges and causes bodily harm or death or (2) the possession of the firearm by the child is in and of itself illegal. This law does not apply in every circumstance, such as when the firearm is kept in a securely locked box or container or when the firearm is equipped with a trigger lock.
As a general rule, criminal liability for a child’s acts requires some intentional act or serious disregard by the parent. Careful and responsible supervision of a child’s activities can in most cases avoid criminal repercussions.