Parents prosecuted after leaving children in car

Friday, August 1st 2008, 10:12 pm
By: News 9

By Ashli Sims, for NEWS 9

Leaving a child in a hot car can be deadly.  So far this year, 22 children from across the country have died after being left in hot cars.  

In Oklahoma, 11 children have died since 1998 and parents who leave their children in hot cars can be held criminally responsible.

In some cases, leaving your child in a hot car isn't just a mistake, it's neglect.  Prosecutors said a new law that was supposed to give parents consequences will actually let them off easy.

In one case, a six-month-old baby was accidentally left in a hot pickup truck, outside his father's business.  In another, a five-month-old was left alone for eight sweltering hours in a high school parking lot.

With extreme heat, a moment of forgetfulness can lead to unthinkable deaths and criminal charges.

"None of us want to have to deal with this kind of case and it's completely preventable," said Tulsa County Assistant District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler.

Kunzweiler said when leaving a child in a hot car rises to the level of neglect, he files felony charges.

The Glenpool teacher who forgot to drop her baby off at day care was charged with second degree manslaughter.  She eventually reached a plea deal with prosecutors for a two-year deferred sentence.

The Catoosa father, who left his son outside of his store, also pleaded guilty to manslaughter charges.  He got five years deferred.

But, Kunzweiler said a new law could take felony charges off the table.

"I gotta be honest with you as a parent and certainly as a prosecutor I am literally horrified by the prospect of this new legislation," said Tulsa County Assistant District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler.

The new law is called the Forget Me Not Vehicle Safety Act.  Starting August 24th, it will be a misdemeanor to leave a child or a vulnerable adult alone in a vehicle.  Prosecutors are outraged because, the punishment is just a $50 fine.

"You can take that person, at least the way I read this legislation, within an inch of their life and only get a fine for that kind of conduct. It's very disturbing to me," said Tulsa County Assistant District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler.

Lawmakers said they were trying to bring attention to the issue and make a statement to parents.

Jabar Shumate who co-sponsored the law said the measure is only a first step, and that doesn't mean they won't go back and strengthen the law.

Kunzweiler said until they do, you can get in more trouble for smoking a marijuana joint, than injuring your children by leaving them in a hot car.

Just to underline how dangerous it can be to leave a child in a car, if it's 95 degrees outside, even with the windows cracked, it can climb to 140 degrees inside your car in just 15 minutes. 

One death this year occurred when it was only 80 degrees outside.

Related Story:

08/01/2008  State Takes Kids Left In Hot SUV