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Are Parents Held Responsible for Their Child’s Crimes?

Posted by Dmitry Gorin | Nov 27, 2023

Let's review whether parents could face criminal charges for crimes committed by their children. In the State of California, parents may find themselves in a difficult situation if their child commits a crime.

While most parents strive to raise law-abiding citizens, sometimes children make mistakes and engage in illegal activities. Many kids will go through a rebellious period, causing their parents to be on an emotional roller coaster.  No parent wants to see their child struggle through their early years, but it's everyday life.

Are Parents Held Responsible for Their Child’s Crimes?
California’s “parental responsibility law” can impose penalties for the illegal actions of their child.

Some children end up getting in trouble with the law. When this occurs, California parents not only have to worry about their child's issues, but they might now have their own legal issues. This raises the question: can parents be held criminally liable for crimes committed by their children?

The short answer is yes. California's “parental responsibility law” could impose criminal charges and penalties on a parent for the illegal actions of their children. Further, parents can also be held liable in civil court for damage or harm caused by their children.

Under California Penal Code 272(a)(2) PC, the state holds the parent responsible for the actions of their minor children.

This means that if the court determines that you reasonably should have known that your kid was acting in a delinquent manner or likely to act delinquently, and you failed to take any action to discipline, supervise, or control them, you may be charged for the failure to exercise “reasonable care” or “control” over your child.

Simply put, suppose you have a juvenile child accused of committing a crime, and the circumstances suggest to prosecutors that you reasonably should have known about your child's behavior and failed to deter it. In that case, you may also be charged with a crime under PC 272(a)(2).

What is the "Parental Responsibility Law?"

Penal Code 272 PC is the California statute discussing the crime of "contributing to the delinquency of a minor"—that is, directly or indirectly encouraging children to engage in unlawful activity. Section (a)(2) of this statute has been dubbed the "parental responsibility law" because the courts have interpreted it to hold parents accountable in certain situations when their children commit crimes.

California Parental Responsibility Law

PC 272(a)(2) simply states:

"For purposes of this subdivision, parent or legal guardian to any person under 18 years shall have the duty to exercise reasonable care, supervision, protection, and control over their minor child."

While this statement doesn't overtly say that parents can be charged with a crime for the actions of their children, case law has interpreted it as such. Specifically, in Williams v. Garcetti, the California Supreme Court wrote concerning PC 272(a)(2) in its decision:

"The terms "supervision" and "control" suggest an aspect of the parental duty that focuses on the child's actions and their effect on third parties. Parents violate Section 272 when they omit to perform their task of reasonable "supervision" and "control," which results in the child's delinquency.

Therefore, the Legislature must have intended the "supervision" and "control" elements of the amendment to describe parents' duty to reasonably supervise and control their children so that the children do not engage in delinquent acts."

In other words, the courts have ruled that simply by failing to exercise reasonable supervision and control of one's child, a parent is indirectly committing the crime of contributing to the delinquency of a minor" and can be charged as a result.

Further, PC 270 addresses school truancy and provides that a parent may be charged with a misdemeanor if their child is a “chronic truant,” which occurs when they are absent without a valid excuse for more than 10% of the schooldays in any one school year.

While a conviction under this section of the penal code could send a parent to jail for up to a year and order them to pay a fine of up to $2,000, most courts will allow parents to attend parenting classes, counseling, or other programs;

Under What Circumstances Can Parents Face Criminal Charges?

While you would not be charged with the specific crime committed by your child, there are circumstances where the law allows the court to hold the parents legally accountable for effectively allowing the crime to occur. These situations link the parent's lack of supervision or negligence and the child's delinquent act.

For instance, if a parent knowingly allows their minor child access to firearms without proper safety measures and the child uses the weapon to commit a crime, the parent could potentially face charges under the parental responsibility law.

Similarly, if a parent fails to address their child's truancy, leading to chronic school absences, they may also face legal repercussions (PC 270.1). Specifically, if you're charged under PC 272 because your child committed a convict you of a crime, prosecutors must establish the following:

  • You knew, or reasonably should have known, that your child was delinquent or at risk of delinquency; and
  • You failed to take appropriate action to "supervise" and "control" your child to prevent the criminal behavior.

What Are the Penalties?

Violations of California's parental responsibility law are misdemeanor offenses (effectively contributing to the delinquency of a minor). If you are convicted, you could face:

  • Fines of up to $2500 and
  • Up to one year in county jail.

However, the State of California offers a Parental Diversion Program by which, if you are eligible, you may be able to get the charges dismissed, avoiding jail time and a criminal record in the process. You will likely be required to undergo some treatment or educational program to complete the program.

What Are the Common Defenses?

If you face charges under parental responsibility law, a skilled California criminal defense attorney may employ specific strategies to defend against the charges. These may include, but are not limited to:

  • Lack of Knowledge: You were unaware of their child's criminal behavior, perhaps due to the child's secretive actions or misleading information.
  • Reasonable Supervision: If you can demonstrate you have been providing adequate supervision and guidance, you may be able to refute the charge.
  • Outside Influence: Despite your best efforts, external factors such as peer pressure or influence from other adults led to the child's criminal behavior.
  • Unforeseeable Conduct: If you can show that the child's criminal conduct was completely unforeseeable based on the child's past behavior and character, you may be able to avoid liability.

Contact our law firm to review the case details and to discuss legal options. Eisner Gorin LLP is located in Los Angeles, CA.

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About the Author

Dmitry Gorin

Dmitry Gorin is a licensed attorney, who has been involved in criminal trial work and pretrial litigation since 1994. Before becoming partner in Eisner Gorin LLP, Mr. Gorin was a Senior Deputy District Attorney in Los Angeles Courts for more than ten years. As a criminal tri...

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