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Should Leaving Children in Cars Lead to Jail Time or Loss of Custody?

A lot can happen in five minutes. Consider this scenario: A toddler is sleeping in the back seat. Her mother runs off to the store for five minutes. The car is parked in the shade and it’s a cool day.

child neglect left in a carThe child wakes up and finds a small crowd gathered around the vehicle. Strange people are taking pictures with their phones. Mommy tries to save her, but a man in a blue uniform takes Mommy away. The toddler screams and cries as strangers open the car and kidnap her. The toddler is taken to offices and daycares. The little girl is frightened and just wants to go home with her mom.

Most good Samaritans who see children left alone in vehicles take down the license number, call the police, and drive away after the officer arrives. They usually don’t see what happens after the arrest is made and the child is taken. So let me fill in the blanks:

If the parent is charged with child neglect or one of the numerous variations, the parent will be in jail until bail is posted. Depending on the state and county, the case might be heard in juvenile or criminal court. The child is either taken home if there is a caretaker or to protective services. If the parent has the money, the parent can hire a criminal defense attorney. If not, the parent risks significant jail time and losing custody of the child.

Let that sink in for a second. Leaving your child in the car could result in losing custody of the child. Most comments online are along the lines of “Good. Doesn’t deserve to be a parent.” Obviously there isn’t a lot of sympathy for the parents of these children, but I urge readers to consider the children inside the system.

A young child doesn’t know anything about the risks of a hot car or abductions. The toddler is probably sleeping in the back seat or playing with a toy. The toddler only knows her parents were taken away. Removing a toddler from the custody of her parents will mentally and emotionally scar a child for life. Being dragged through the system, even briefly, can emotionally harm a child.

In some cases, removing a child from the custody of a parent is the correct answer. But those situations should be rare. In benign situations like leaving a child in a car, the process and the end game will psychologically damage the children. It is extremely ironic that we protect children from potential physical harm by inflicting emotional pain on them.

What’s Best for the Child Is What’s Best for Society

Leaving a child alone in a car can be dangerous. Children have died when left unattended in an overheated car. And there have been a few cases where parents intentionally leave their children in the car to die. It’s good that we live in a world where people are watching out for kids. However, sending all children and harmless parents through the criminal justice does not help the children. Like the “war on drugs,” society cannot use criminal sanctions to punish otherwise harmless behavior. The results will be horrifying and will have a long impact on society.

Children can be removed from the custody of parents if the parent leaves the child unattended in a car because of prosecutors’ discretion. Prosecutors have the authority to decide what type of crime they can charge defendants with. If a parent leaves a child in a car unattended, the prosecutor can bring a charge of child endangerment. In many states, child endangerment can be a misdemeanor or a felony. If the charge is a felony, the child can be removed from the defendant’s custody.

The problem is that that kind of punishment for a minor incident is absolutely absurd. A small fine or an order to attend parenting classes should be sufficient. There should be enough punishment to send a message that children can die if left unattended, but not so severe that the family itself is threatened. Children can and do die if left unattended in a car. However, going over the speed limit could also potentially put the child’s life in danger. Yet nobody in their right mind would approve of removing child custody over a speeding ticket.

If hardened criminals deserve proportional justice, then new parents should also have punishments that fit the crime. Instead of treating these cases like child molestation, these cases should be at the level of traffic tickets.

Embryonic Custody: An Emerging Legal Battlefield Featuring Sofia Vergara

One of the stars of Modern Family, Sofia Vergara, is currently in a custody dispute with her ex-fiancé, despite the fact that the two have never had any children together. Her ex-fiancé, Nick Loeb, wrote an op-ed featured in the New York Times that brought attention to a fairly new kind of custody battle: embryonic custody.

Sofia Vergara Embryo Custody DisputeThe frozen embryos, technically known as pre-embryos until their implantation in the uterus, were created in 2013. The medical directive signed by both parties states, “We understand and are aware that we may change this Directive. However, any and all changes must be mutually agreed to between both named partners. One person cannot use the Cryopreserved Material to create a child…without explicit written consent of the other person…”

Custody battles over embryos are the result of the rising popularity of in vitro fertilization (IVF). As stated in Loeb’s article, there are ten similar cases in the U.S. where one parent wants to take the embryo to term while the other parent opposes the action. Out of the ten cases, only the Pennsylvania (Reber v. Reiss) and Illinois (Szafranski v. Dunston) courts ruled in favor of the party who wished to bring the embryo to term.

How Do Courts Decide Embryonic Custody?

Courts take one of three approaches in deciding custody of a pre-embryo: a balance of interests test, a contracts approach or the mutual consent approach. In deciding traditional child custody cases, courts look to the best interests of the child. The juxtaposition between the two balancing of interests methods is a gray area for the courts because in the traditional custody cases, courts base custody on the best interests of the child and look at a variety of factors. In the balance of interests test for embryos, the court only looks at one factor: one party’s desire to use the embryos against the other party’s desire not to.

The courts believe there is a special interest when the embryos are a parties’ last chance to have a biological child, which tends to result in the case being decided in favor of the party who wishes to bring the embryo to term. The reasoning for both the Pennsylvania and Illinois courts were near identical: both women underwent chemotherapy and the embryos were their last chance to have biological children. The judges ruled that their interest in becoming a parent to biological children outweighed the opposing party’s interest in not bringing the embryos to term.

Loeb v. Vergara – Who Will Win?

There are many parallels with the IVF cases and the abortion cases heard by the Supreme Court, the most prominent is raising the question of “When does life begin?” Loeb believes that the embryos he created with Vergara should be brought to term because he says, “Lives were already created.”

Under the approach of the best interests’ of the parties, Loeb is likely to lose because there are no indications that the pre-embryos he created with Vergara are his last chance at a biological child. Under the traditional contracts approach, favored by the American Medical Association, Loeb also is likely to lose because the two parties signed a medical directive that requires the consent of both parties to bring the embryos to term.

It remains a likely possibility that the  Supreme Court will rule on a case regarding IVF custody (the only IVF related ruling the Court has issued is on IVF and social security in Astrue v. Capato) due to the complex moral, legal and ethical complications that arise with cases similar to Loebs’ and the growing popularity of the procedure.

Body Cameras on Cops: Who Controls the Footage?

After the fatal death of Freddie Gray, Baltimore’s Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has announced all police officers will have body cameras by 2016. President Obama also supports the use of body cameras and has proposed $263 million for police body cameras and training.

police body camMandatory body cameras on cops is a good start to easing the tensions between the police and the public. But a lot of legislative issues arise with this topic, including: 1) Who has access to the recordings and, and 2) How are public record requests handled?

Should the Video Footage Be in Public Records?

Lawmakers in at least 15 states have introduced bills that exempt footage of police encounters from state public records or to limit what the public has access to. These lawmakers state their motive is to protect the Fourth Amendment right of privacy to the civilians in the videos.

It seems reasonable to wonder if these lawmakers are just afraid that even more police departments will come under investigation of the DOJ, like the Baltimore Police Department?

Who Controls the Footage?

For the most part, police currently have full control over video footage captured by the body cameras. They also have control over public access to the videos.

The skeptic in me is concerned that the police are not going to voluntarily release a video that makes them look even worse than they already do. What’s to stop the police from selectively only releasing videos that show them to be innocent?

Some lawmakers have proposed that a third party should be responsible for releasing the footage to the public. In my opinion, this is the best possible option. The public shouldn’t necessarily have full control over the body camera footage, but the police shouldn’t have exclusive access either. A third party regulating the release to the public or access to the footage is the best option.

Couple Caught Canoodling on a Florida Beach Must Register as Sex Offenders

A couple convicted of having sex on a Florida beach is forced to register as sex offenders. Twenty-year-old Elissa Alvarez and 40-year-old Jose “Benny” Caballero were convicted of lewd and lascivious exhibition.

couple have sex on the beach must register as sex offendersA grandmother on the beach filmed the couple, as people passing by were forced to watch and cover their children’s eyes.

Alvarez’ attorney attempted to defend her by stating she was merely dancing on top of Caballero. If you see the video, she’s clearly doing a little more than dancing.

The charges call for 15 years in prison. Alvarez will not be spending the whole 15 years in prison but instead will serve an undisclosed amount of time in jail. Caballero on the other hand is a re-offender; three years prior he was convicted of cocaine trafficking. Because the new charges are felonies, and he was just released from prison three years ago, the judge is sentencing him to the full 15 years.

Both Alvarez and Caballero will forever be registered sex offenders. This will affect their employment, where they live, and their everyday lives. They can’t be close to schools or public parks, and having children will be extremely difficult.

Sex offenders have a social stigma: no one wants to be around them, hire them, or live near them.

Sex Offender Regulations

Alvarez and Caballero must report to the Sheriff’s Office to ReRegister either two or four times per year depending on the circumstances of their crime.

Should people like Alvarez and Caballero have to register as sex offenders, just like child molesters and rapists? Or should people who commit a non-violent crime, that does not involve a child, be mandated to go through counseling instead?

In my opinion, Alvarez is not a sex offender. She is a 20-year-old woman who acted recklessly while just wanted to be intimate with her boyfriend. Was it wrong? Absolutely. But she is nowhere close to having the same mindset as a rapist.

The purpose of the sex offender registration is to protect society from people who may have a propensity for committing sex-related crimes. Given the details of this case, I wouldn’t say that anyone needs to be protected from Alvarez.

I believe crimes like these, depending on specific circumstances, should entail counseling or mandatory classes, along with probation. Re-offenders like Caballero should possibly serve some jail time. But first time offenders like Alvarez, who committed a sexual non-violent crime that was not imposed directly onto a child, should not be forced to register as a sex offender. Any hope of having children and giving them a normal life is ruined unnecessarily.

George Lucas Has a Right to Build Affordable Housing Even If His Neighbors Disagree

Back in 2012, George Lucas tried to build a production studio for his company, Lucasfilm, on his Grand Ranch property in California’s Marin County. The median household income of Marin County is $90,000. The county’s board of supervisors protested the construction of the production studio, citing noise, traffic, and environmental concerns. Lucas eventually yielded to the collective wisdom of the council and ended the project

george lucas affordable housingInstead, Lucas proposed building affordable housing in 2013, using money from Lucas Valley Estates Homeowners Association. Once again, the neighborhood protested the project, arguing that the drug dealers, crime, and lowlifes would destroy the character of the county and drop property values.

Earlier this month, Lucas proposed to continue with his affordable housing project, but with his own money this time. The 52-acre project would cost about $200 million and would include a community center, swimming pool, farm, gardens, bridges, and bus stops. Lucas told the media through his lawyer that “We have enough housing for millionaires here; we need some housing for regular working people.”

Lucas Strikes Back

It’s easy to envision what Lucas’s position would be. The project would be on Lucas’s land and paid by Lucas himself. The ranch is his property and therefore he should have the right to build whatever he pleases on it.

The neighbors could raise any applicable zoning laws and possibly nuisance violations. However, the zoning card was already played when Lucas was forced to abandon his studio plans. Now that Lucas is constructing residential housing, the laws restricting construction to residential property are easily satisfied.

Although affordable housing could bring more people, that doesn’t mean affordable housing would bring drug dealers and other unsavory characters. Affordable income is for households with a median household income; affordable housing is very different from transitional housing or non-market project rentals. The latter often attract crime because the residents often turn to non-legal means to make income while the affordable housing deal with workers who make money, but just need a little push to access better housing.

It’s debatable whether affordable housing is a good idea, but Lucas seems to think so. Affordable housing might affect property values, but there is no right to high property value. However, Lucas doesn’t appear to be constructing a slum. With a swimming pool, community center, and gardens, Lucas is constructing an entire community. If managed correctly, a medium household community wouldn’t tank property values. As long as Lucas is willing to pay for and take responsibility for his project, there’s no reason to deny Lucas the use of his own property.