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Parental Criminal Liability

Firearm Access Laws

Some states have laws which hold parents criminally liable when children gain access to firearms. At least nine states hold adults criminally responsible for storing a loaded firearm in such a way as to allow a minor to gain access. Some of these provisions include an enhanced penalty if the minor causes injury or death. Other state laws create exceptions for parental liability when the minor gains access to a weapon by unlawful entry into the home or place of storage, or if the firearm is used in self-defense. In addition, several states have provisions that create criminal liability when a custodial adult or parent is aware that his or her child possesses a firearm unlawfully and does not take it away. A number of jurisdictions have enacted laws making it a crime to leave a loaded firearm where it is accessible by children. Typically, these laws apply -- and parents can be charged -- only if the minor gains access to the gun. There are usually exceptions if the firearm is stored in a locked box and/or secured with a trigger lock. In most states, the penalty for unlawful access is a misdemeanor unless the minor injures someone else, in which case the parent can be charged with a felony.

Internet Access and Computer Hacking

Another parental criminal liability issue involves certain unlawful computer and Internet activities committed by minors. In 2003, The Recording Industry Association sued 261 persons for downloading protected music onto their personal computers and infringing copyrights. Among the defendants were several surprised parents who had no knowledge of their minor child's downloading activities. In Thrifty-Tel v. Bezenek, the California Court of Appeals upheld a verdict against the parents of juvenile computer hackers who accessed the phone company's network in order to make long-distance calls without cost. And with the appearance of camera cell-phones and computer video cameras in the early 2000s, the opportunity for minors to sell pornographic images of themselves or otherwise engage in illegal Internet activities has increased dramatically. In such matters, federal law (e.g. Section 301 of the Copyright Act) may preempt state laws and provide a more uniform guidance for resolution. However, these examples point to the need for a more comprehensive approach to parental liability across state lines.

Delinquent Youth

Although some states impose criminal liability on parents of delinquent youth, many more have enacted less stringent types of parental responsibility laws. Kansas, Michigan, and Texas require parents to attend the hearings of children adjudicated delinquent or face contempt charges. Legislation in Alabama, Kansas, Kentucky, and West Virginia requires parents to pay the court costs associated with these proceedings. Other states impose financial responsibility on parents for the costs incurred by the state when youth are processed through the juvenile justice system. Florida, Idaho, Indiana, North Carolina, and Virginia require parents to reimburse the state for the costs associated with the care, support, detention, or treatment of their children while under the supervision of state agencies. Idaho, Maryland, Missouri, and Oklahoma require parents to undertake restitution payments.

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