Malicious Punishment of a Child - Hard to Define Even By Courts

The crime of Malicious Punishment of a Child in Minnesota is vaguely defined by the statute:

A parent, legal guardian, or caretaker who, by an intentional act or a series of intentional acts with respect to a child, evidences unreasonable force or cruel discipline that is excessive under the circumstances.

What exactly is “unreasonable force” and “cruel discipline”? Well, let’s look to the standard jury instruction for the crime – which is the template instruction used in trials – to see how courts interpret these vague terms. I’m sure further clarity is offered here; after all, when a jury is charged with rendering a verdict, the court must clarify exactly what constitutes this crime… right???

‘Unreasonable force’ is such force used in the course of punishment as would appear to a reasonable person to be excessive under the circumstances. The term “cruelty” may be taken as having its common, ordinary meaning.

Wrong. This instruction offers absolutely nothing more in terms of trying to clarify these vague terms. Courts have been left to figure this out on their own fancy.

When trying to determine what type of conduct falls under this vague criminal definition, courts state that a number of factors are to be considered, including: the child’s age, height, and weight; the child’s infraction or behavior leading up to the act(s); the degree of force (if any) used by the defendant; and the impact of the discipline on the child. And because the definition is so loose, courts have even determined that, under certain circumstances, bodily harm is not necessary – even though the definition directly refers to bodily harm.

It’s a mockery of our criminal justice system that a criminal act – that can be charged as a gross misdemeanor or felony – is so vague that it is difficult to ascertain what conduct would constitute criminal behavior. Alas, that’s the system we live in. And the beneficiary to this is the State because these vague terms give great leeway to prosecute individuals based on what the prosecutor or the law enforcement agent, alone, deems to be criminal.

Do not be discouraged if you find yourself facing these charges. The circumstances of the alleged criminal acts should dictate how these vague terms are interpreted in your case. This means that the same behavior may be considered criminal under one set of circumstances, while not criminal under a different set of circumstances. It also means that different juries can reach different results on the same set of facts. Finally, proving this case often relies upon many witnesses, often lay witnesses – i.e. not state officials, who are often better on the witness stand and, unfairly, presumed to be credible because they are a state official. This makes the state’s case harder to prove.

Fighting these charges alone would be extremely difficult to do. It takes a sophisticated, aggressive, and detailed approach to develop and implement your best defense(s). North Star Criminal Defense has the experience you need on your side.



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