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Throwing the Book at Mom and Dad

August 23, 1993|WILLIAM W. BEDSWORTH | William W. Bedsworth is an Orange County Superior Court judge.

My son turned 21 last week. Now, if he goes berserk and drives a riding mower through a group of nuns or poisons New Hampshire, I can't be prosecuted.

At least that's how I interpret the California Supreme Court's decision in Williams v. Garcetti. Parents can be held legally responsible for turning their kids into juvenile delinquents, but if the little monsters turn into ax murderers after their 21st birthday, well, so it goes.

Actually, the Supreme Court decided that California's law against "contributing to the delinquency of a minor"--previously thought to apply to things like giving them liquor or encouraging them to commit crimes--has much broader application. According to the Supremes, Penal Code Section 272 also applies to bad parenting. Bad parenting--or at least parenting so dismal that a "reasonable person" (good luck finding one of those) would have known that the child was in danger of becoming delinquent--can result in a criminal prosecution against the parents, with a possible penalty as high as one year in jail and a $2,500 fine.

For those of us who still have to struggle with our little 'raptors, it's just one more thing to worry about. First, Herzegovina, then undercooked hamburgers, now this. In the immortal words of the great poet-philosopher Roseanne Rosannadanna, "It's always something."

Fortunately, this "something" is probably not quite as bad as it sounds. In order for you to be tossed in the pokey when junior goes bad, it has to be shown that you were grossly negligent. Your parenting has to be so indefensibly crummy as to be "aggravated, culpable, gross, or reckless . . . such a departure from what would be the conduct of an ordinarily prudent or careful (parent) under the same circumstances as to demonstrate an indifference to consequences."

I can live with that. After all, one of the few emotions I've not felt in raising three children is indifference.

And a careful reading of the Williams case satisfies me you really don't have to be afraid the parenting police are going to show up at your door if your kid gets obnoxious at the Kmart. My 15 years as a prosecutor persuade me that the people most likely to be prosecuted are the ones who abandon any attempt to ride herd on their progeny, plopping down in front of the TV while Nimrod and his gangster buddies wreak havoc on the community and little Madonna turns the guest bath into a meth lab.

Still, it's a little disconcerting. I have somehow mismanaged my life so as to spend 37 years of it raising children. My Section 272 parental liability extends into the year 2009.

Now the Supreme Court says that if my 5-year-old--affectionately known around our house as "Hurricane Kate" or simply "The 'Cane"--progresses from merely hyper-ornery to the big leagues of antisocial, I could be liable. Nice timing, folks. You couldn't have warned me six years ago?

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