RECKLESS ENDANGERMENT OF A CHILD REQUIRES PROOF OF STATE OF MIND
Would a reasonable person go walking on railroad tracks with their child while drunk? And in a prosecution for reckless endangerment of a child in violation of Mass. General Laws Chapter 265, section 13L, is it enough for the government to prove that a reasonable person wouldn’t?
The Supreme Judicial Court recently clarified the reckless endangerment law by holding that the statute requires more than an objective showing of risk. It requires actual awareness and disregard of a substantial risk.
The case is Commonwealth v. Coggeshall (Feb 24, 2016), and it involved an intoxicated individual walking on railroad tracks with his son. When police responded to the scene, they observed a man and young boy walking on the tracks, holding hands. The boy was carrying a couple of plastic bags in one hand, and although he was apparently trying to keep his father upright, the police observed the man fall down on the tracks. The man advised the police that he was drunk, and they smelled alcohol on his breath. The officers escorted the man and his son off the tracks. As stated in the Court’s decision, “[a]t no time did the [man] display an ability to walk on his own.”
The man was arrested and charged with reckless endangerment of a child in violation of G.L. c. 265, §13L. The man then filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that the application for criminal charges against him should have been denied by the clerk magistrate because the application failed to establish that the man actually was aware of the substantial risk of serious bodily injury to which he exposed his child. A District Court judge allowed the motion and dismissed the charge. A charge of walking on railroad tracks in violation of G.L. c. 160, § 218 was not dismissed.
On appeal, the government argued that it need not prove actual awareness of a substantial risk of serious bodily injury, but rather need only meet the common law objective standard of recklessness, that is, that either the man was aware of the risk, or that a subjectively reasonable person would have been aware of the risk.
The Supreme Judicial Court noted that G.L. c. 265, section 13L differs from the common-law meaning of “wanton or reckless,” by expressly limiting such conduct to circumstances where an accused “is aware of and consciously disregards” the risk. The Court then held that, to be charged with reckless endangerment of a child, a defendant must be shown to have been actually aware of the risk. “Unlike the common-law meaning of ‘wanton or reckless,’ the Commonwealth does not have the option of proving a defendant’s objective or subjective state of mind.”
After holding that conscious disregard of the risk was required, the Court went on to find that the government had indeed shown probable cause to believe that the man in fact was aware of and consciously disregarded a substantial and unjustifiable risk that his acts would result in serious bodily injury to a child. The Court relied on the fact that the man knew he was walking with his minor son on railroad tracks, and that the man knew he was drunk at the time (having told the police that he was “fucked up”). The Court also relied on the “common knowledge” that railroad tracks are dangerous places to walk.
This case should prove helpful in defending against a charge of reckless endangerment, as it clarifies that there is a heightened burden of proof beyond what was required at common law.
Attorney Kevin D. Quinlan
 G.L. c. 265, § 13L states in part that “wanton or reckless behavior occurs when a person is aware of and consciously disregards a substantial and unjustifiable risk that his acts, or omissions where there is a duty to act, would result in serious bodily injury or sexual abuse to a child. The risk must be of such nature and degree that disregard of the risk constitutes a gross deviation from the standard of conduct that a reasonable person would observe in the situation.”