An Albertville grandmother was arrested for leaving her grandchild in a locked car in the parking lot of the Boaz branch of Wal-Mart while she went shopping on Memorial Day weekend. Other shoppers called the police, reporting that there was a child “in distress.” When police arrived, they found the car doors locked and the windows closed. The grandmother, Angela Coffey, came back to the car while the police were attempting to open the doors. She was arrested for child endangerment and the child was removed from her custody.
There are 19 states where it is illegal to leave a child unattended in a car, for any amount of time and regardless of the weather. Alabama does not have such a law. In those 19 states, parents have lost custody of their children and been criminally charged because a passerby or store security saw an unattended child and called police, even if there was no apparent immediate danger. Opponents of these types of laws say that parents are capable of making the decision as to where and when a child can be left alone for a few minutes. Those who are in favor of such laws argue that an average of several dozen children die in the United States each year after being left alone or forgotten in a car.
In the case in Boaz, the child’s age and sex were not reported, and no one knows how long the child was left in the car. Police reported that the child’s clothes were soaked with sweat, but the child did not need medical attention. The high temperature that day was 84 degrees. The National Weather Service estimated that the temperature in the car could have climbed as high as 113 degrees within 15 minutes. A search of the car also uncovered illegal prescription drugs, which also may have played a part in the decision to charge Coffey.
Could I go to jail for leaving my child alone in a parked car?
As of this writing, Alabama parents and grandparents will apparently not be charged simply for leaving a child in a car for a few minutes in temperate conditions and in an apparently safe place. It is not clear whether Coffey miscalculated the danger of leaving the child alone because drugs were involved. Still, it is worth knowing that cars can heat up faster than many people think, and that errands can take longer than planned, and that there is a clear trend in the United States toward charging adults in these types of situations, even where the children were not harmed.
If you have been charged with a crime, or if you have been investigated by CPS because you made the decision to leave your child unattended, call our offices immediately. We should all be concerned about the dangers to unattended children ― but we should also worry about demonizing responsible parents.