Littleton Massacre Spotlights Parental Liability Laws

By: - May 5, 1999 12:00 am

WASHINGTON – Prior to the April 20 school shootings in Littleton, Colo., at least 13 states had laws that made parents criminally liable for acts performed by their children.

The deaths of 14 students and one teacher at Columbine High School will likely lead to a proliferation of similar legislation, predicted Steven Wisensale, a University of Connecticut family law and public policy professor.

His prediction was based on President Clinton’s proposed legislation to make parents criminally responsible if their children commit crimes with guns. In a related piece of legislation, the Illinois House approved a bill to jail gun owners whose weapons maim or kill in the hands of children.

But before explosions and automatic weapons fire rang through the halls of Columbine High, Alabama, Arkansas, California, Delaware, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Tennessee and Wyoming already had parental responsibility statutes on their books.

Their laws allow parents to be prosecuted based on a failure to supervise their offspring, or because of negligent supervision. Penalties include incarceration and fines.

Colorado, the state where teenagers Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris went on their murderous rampage, also has a parental responsibility law, says Linda Szymanski of the National Center for Juvenile Justice. But the scope of Colorado’s law is limited and only makes parents subject to criminal sanctions if they fail to participate in a child’s adjudication, Szymanski says.

Before the Littleton tragedy, North Carolina had already decided that on July 1 it would begin enforcing a law requiring parents to appear in court when their minor children are being tried.

Three states, Michigan, Utah and Idaho, have laws giving local jurisdictions the authority to hold parents criminally responsible for children’s deeds.

In the aftermath of Littleton, an onslaught of parental liability legislation from stunned lawmakers is likely. Some question whether laws holding moms and dads criminally responsible for the sins of their sons and daughters are good public policy.

“The problem we have in this country is we’re constantly wrestling with the dilemma of preserving the privacy of what goes on in the family, versus what is for the good of the greater community,” says Wisensale of the University of Connecticut. “I don’t know if parental responsibility laws are the way to go. They might be — I don’t think we have enough evidence to address that. Maybe they’ll work, but it’s a question of how far can you go to legislate behavior?”

When the focus shifts from criminal trials to civil trials, which emphasize the recovery of money damages, it’s been widely accepted since the late 1800’s that parents may be held liable for their children’s crimes, University of Michigan law professor Frank Vandervort says.

California was the first state in the nation to enact a criminal parental liability law, in 1985, largely to begin holding the parents of gang dealers accountable.

If states rush to put laws on their books holding parents criminally responsible, that would be “an overreaction,” Vandervort says. “Actually, what we have in most states is that children can be charged criminally as adults. It’s as if I went out and committed a crime and a state tried to hold you responsible for it.”

Vandervort adds that parental responsibility statutes are ” inevitably going to be challenged in court.”

That’s already happened in California, where a group of taxpayers filed suit to have the state’s parental responsibility law removed. They claimed it was unconstitutionally vague and would result in a waste of public funds. Their challenge made it to California’s top court, where it was upheld in 1988, says Szymanski.

On the other hand, Connecticut has struck down statutes holding parents responsible for children’s acts, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.