The death of Cooper Harris, the 22-month old son of Justin Ross Harris, has gained a great deal of media attention in the two years since the toddler died after being left in a hot car for seven hours. His father is currently on trial for murder because prosecutors believe that the death was intentional. While that situation is unusual, hot-car deaths are tragically common—but the charges you may face if it happens to your child could vary greatly. This is what you should know.
Hot-car deaths are a national problem and usually accidental.
According to at least one study, at least 388 children have died over the past decade from heatstroke after being left unattended in a hot car. Scientists who study neurology and human behavior say that almost anyone can end up forgetting a child in the back seat of a car, given the right set of circumstances. There's even a name for the problem that comes when over-tired parents end up having their routine disrupted in some small way and forget the baby in the back seat of a car: Forgotten Baby Syndrome.
Experts in Forgotten Baby Syndrome say that it isn't an issue of parents being purposefully neglectful—instead, it's a failure of the cognitive portion of the brain to overrule the motor part of the brain that handles routine tasks. Something has to happen to disrupt the caregiver's routine. For example, it could be that the father of the child doesn't normally drop the child off at daycare on that particular day of the week.
Many people have an understanding of how easy this sort of thing can happen—even CNN legal analyst Sunny Hostin admits that it could have happened to her. That prompts many people to want to see cases of Forgotten Baby Syndrome treated as if they are simply a tragic accident, not a crime.
Prosecution varies greatly between cases.
One study indicates that from 1968 to 2013, only about 60% of cases of Forgotten Baby Syndrome resulted in a parent or caregiver being charged. Even in cases where caregivers are charged, murder charges don't necessarily result. Police may charge parents or caregivers with a far lesser crime, like manslaughter. Prosecutors may not aggressively pursue the case, and community support can swing heavily in favor of the parent or caregiver. Those charged may not be ultimately convicted. Those convicted may be able to escape with probation, not jail time.
Unlike the Harris case, most cases of hot-car death are clearly tragic accidents. If it happens to you, make sure that you discuss the situation with a criminal defense attorney, such as John McWilliam, PLLC, as soon as possible.