Whether it is illegal to leave a child in the car unattended in Michigan will depend on the specific age of the child and whether the specific circumstances – such as the outside temperature – creates an “unreasonable risk of harm or injury” for the child.
If serious physical harm or death results from a child being left alone in a vehicle, the penalty may include 10 years or more in prison.
Before we discuss the law on whether it is illegal to leave a child in the car unattended below, my own advice is not to leave kids alone in a vehicle. Law or no law, it is not safe to leave children alone, whether we are running into a store, a gas station or running what we think will be a quick errand. Children can either hurt themselves or someone else could hurt them.
As Janette E. Fennell, founder and president of the national child safety organization Kids and Cars.org, explained in an interview with MLive:
“[What if] someone jumps in and steals the car and doesn’t plan on a kid being in it? They’re either going to ditch that car or ditch the baby …”
Saginaw Township Police Lt. Gary P. Grauf also told MLive that children should not be left alone in a vehicle:
“Having three kids myself, yeah, it’s inconvenient to bring the kids for a short run into a store, but I’ve never left them in the car.”
Does the law say it is illegal to leave a child in the car unattended?
Yes, Michigan law does say it is illegal to leave a child in the car unattended. The law prohibits a “person who is responsible for the care or welfare of a child” from leaving “that child unattended in a vehicle for a period of time . . . or under circumstances that pose an unreasonable risk of harm or injury to the child.” (MCL 750.135a(1))
This has been the law in Michigan since April 1, 2009.
How old must the child be for it to be illegal to leave them in the car unattended?
The law prohibiting children from being left alone in a vehicle applies to children “less than 6 years of age.” (MCL 750.135a(1) and (3)(a))
When is a child “unattended”?
One of the factors determining if it is illegal to leave a child unattended in a car is defining what “unattended” is. The law says that a child is deemed “unattended” if he or she is “alone or without the supervision of an individual 13 years of age or older who is not legally incapacitated.” (MCL 750.135a(1) and (3)(c))
Is it illegal only for parents to leave a child in the car unattended?
No. It is illegal for any person “who is responsible for the care or welfare of a child” to leave that child unattended in a car for a period of time or under circumstances where he or she could be harmed or injured. (MCL 750.135a(1))
What if a person does not intend for the child left alone in the vehicle to be harmed or injured?
A person’s intent will be an issue if a criminal charge is filed. In People v. Haveman, the Michigan Court of Appeals said that in order to be convicted for leaving a child alone in a vehicle, “a defendant must have a general intent to do the proscribed physical act.”
The unanimous three-judge panel in Haveman (#344825, May 30, 2019 (published)) ruled that the crime of “leaving [a] child unattended in [a] vehicle” is a “general-intent offense” for which “some level of intent” is required for a conviction. The court explained that a “general intent crime” is a crime such as it being illegal to leave a child in a car unattended involves “merely the intent to do” the prohibited, “physical act.”
By comparison, the Haveman judges stated that a conviction for a “strict-liability offense” requires the prosecution to prove only that the “defendant committed the prohibited act.” With a strict-liability crime, it does not matter what the “defendant’s intent” was or “what the defendant actually knew or did not know.” The Haveman court ruled that leaving a child unattended in a car in violation of MCL 750.135a(1) was not a strict-liability offense.
What is an unreasonable risk?
Another one of the factors determining if it is illegal to leave a child unattended in a car is if there is “unreasonable risk of harm or injury for the child”. Unfortunately, the statute does not define what constitutes what an “unreasonable risk of harm or injury” is. Factors that may affect whether a risk is “unreasonable” could include: (1) Temperature outside and inside the vehicle; (2) whether the vehicle is running; (3) whether the vehicle is locked; (4) location or area where the vehicle is parked; (5) time of day; (6) items inside the vehicle; and (7) how long the child or children have been alone inside the vehicle.
What is the penalty for leaving a child alone in a vehicle?
It can be illegal to leave a child in a car unattended in Michigan and when someone is found guilty the penalties range from a misdemeanor to a felony, from 93 days in jail to 15 years in prison, and $500 to $10,000 in fines.
Here are the details about the maximum penalties for a person who leaves a youth 6 years of age or younger in a vehicle in violation of Michigan law:
- No physical harm to the child: Misdemeanor, 93 days in jail and/or a $500 fine or both (MCL 750.135a(2)(a))
- Physical harm to the child: Misdemeanor, 1 year in jail and/or a $1,000 fine or both (MCL 750.135a(2)(b))
- Serious physical harm to the child: Felony, 10 years in prison and/or a $5,000 fine or both (MCL 750.135a(2)(c))
- Death to the child: Felony, 15 years in prison and/or a $10,000 fine or both (MCL 750.135a(2)(d))
The law defines physical and serious physical harm as follows:
- “Physical harm” is defined as “any injury to a child’s physical condition” (MCL 750.135a(3)(b); 750.136b(1)(e))
- “Serious physical harm” is defined as “any physical injury to a child that seriously impairs the child’s health or physical well-being, including, but not limited to, brain damage, a skull or bone fracture, subdural hemorrhage or hematoma, dislocation, sprain, internal injury, poisoning, burn or scald, or severe cut” (MCL 750.135a(3)(b); 750.136b(1)(f))
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