Leaving a Child Unattended in a Car – What’s the Charge?

A recent report concerns an incident in Pflugerville, Texas, in which a man allegedly left his child in a locked car while he went into a building around lunchtime to renew his Texas identification card. The girl was just a year old, and when another person pulled up beside the car and saw the child, she notified a customer service rep at the building, who then notified a trooper from the Department of Public Safety. The father of child could not be immediately located, so the trooper used his tools, and gained access to the car to remove the child.

Police say that the father did not emerge from the building for more than half an hour after he had parked, and when he did appear, he was arrested.

So what is the offense? Under section 22.10 of the Texas Penal Code, entitled “Leaving a Child in a Vehicle”, it is a class C misdemeanor to leave a child under the age of seven in a vehicle for longer than five minutes without the presence in the vehicle of an individual 14 years or older. An offense, to be sure, but the maximum penalty would be just a fine of up to $500. The report we read indicates, however, that after the arrest, bail was set at $8,000. So what’s going on in the case?

While section 22.10 may be the charge in some cases, leaving a young child unattended in a vehicle may also lead to a charge of child endangerment or child abandonment under section 22.041, which is a felony. Interestingly, there are no clear guidelines on where “leaving a child in a vehicle” becomes child endangerment or abandonment. There is certainly a good deal of prosecutorial discretion that can be exercised. And the surrounding circumstances will definitely come into play. Those circumstances can include the age of the child, the weather outside, where and for how long the child was left alone, and so on.

We obviously don’t know how the Pflugerville case will turn out. But absent additional facts, it’s quite possible that this case may result in a plea of guilty to a lesser charge.