If a kid gets left in a hot car (e.g. because the caretaker forgets), the kid can die. Serious criminal charges are sometimes brought against the caretaker (or caretakers, plural)...

I went looking for examples of cases where no charges were filed and attempted to find distinguishing factors, which you can look into and confirm/disconfirm in an answer; what follows is just what I found. I found race (according to the linked article and attorney cited there), being an officer (according to the primary salient fact in the linked article) or otherwise working in the local criminal justice system, and being the first case in a county (according to what distinguishing fact can be found in the article) as potential determiners of whether or not charges are brought against a caretaker. That is not a very satisfying set of factors. So, I ask:

What are the factors used to determine whether or not the caretaker is charged in such a situation?

For this question, assume:

  • the period was hours,
  • the kid died,
  • the caretaker admitted to what s/he did, and
  • the caretaker claimed it's because s/he forgot.

If the whole United States is too broad, answer for whichever state(s) you can give the best answer for, or New York if you need a more specific pointer.

  • Let us continue this discussion in chat.
    – Burned
    Jul 26, 2016 at 20:26
  • 3
    Hey all this comment thread isn't helping improve the question. Use chat instead. I posted a review article on prosecutorial discretion in child death cases in Law Chat. Other people have already done a lot of research into this question. No need to make guesses in the comments here.
    – user3851
    Jul 27, 2016 at 23:52

2 Answers 2


When it is a mistake of memory, and not intentional (as this question is asking), there are no clear standards, and it is largely up to prosecutorial discretion. This means that whatever factors affect prosecutorial discretion (such as the prosecutor knowing who they have to work with on other days) can become significant in the determination.

A prosecutor who announced this decision also specifically noted that it's up to the prosecutor to decide each case separately, with no guidance on fact patterns that could influence the decision either way.

The Washington Post Magazine covered this question somewhat in depth several years ago, arriving at that conclusion. This was a surprise to me, but the article seems like a good resource on this - the question turns out to be more interesting and less resolved than it first appeared to be.


There are many factors that determine whether charges are brought (not just for negligent homicide). One pertains to jurisdiction: if there is a difference in the statutes of two states, you will get different likelihoods of prosecution. The second pertains to prevailing case law, that is, how the courts interpret the words of a statute. The third is the facts surrounding the particular case, such as whether the accused is a very good person who made a mistake while at church, versus a very bad person who made a mistake while drunk. The fourth is the jury pool. All of these pertain to the probability of getting a conviction (if there isn't a reasonable chance of getting a conviction, a prosecutor is unlikely to press charges). And finally there can be personality matters pertaining to the prosecutor. Although the law pretends that prosecutors are automatic emotionless machines that inerrantly and resolutely follow the law, some prosecutors are more aggressive and some are kinder and gentler.

Kids in hot cars is a specialized niche in case law, so I don't think one can learn much about the nature of prosecutorial discretion from focusing just on those cases (Lexis gives me over 1000 cases involving "negligent homicide" and only 185 of them are about children; 85 of those are about cars; 6 are about anything hot). The thing is that case law doesn't tell you anything about cases that a prosecutor did not pursue, so there is really no objective basis for guessing, unless someone does a large-scale survey of prosecutors. (The reason is that case law is the outcome of matters actually pursued in the courts, so when a prosecutor decides not to prosecute, there is no case law).

  • Thanks for your answer. "Case law doesn't tell you anything about cases that a prosecutor did not pursue" isn't completely accurate, though. The last two links point to stories about cases that the prosecutor did not pursue - one involving a police officer and another involving a white person who was not prosecuted in a case very similar to one where a black person in the same jurisdiction was.
    – Burned
    Jul 26, 2016 at 18:16
  • 3
    @Burned: You're just kicking the can down the road: Case law only tells you about cases that were pursued and made it into the judicial record. But media reports only tell you about stories that were found newsworthy (and successfully indexed...).
    – feetwet
    Jul 26, 2016 at 21:07
  • 5
    That is not case law; that's media reports. Case law tells you what juries and judges decide - media reports tell you what the editor thought would best drive up advertising revenue.
    – Dale M
    Jul 26, 2016 at 21:08

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