Sunday, September 03, 2000

Parents aren't always to blame

By Tim Bonfield
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Since the Friday morning deaths of Cincinnati Police Officer Kevin Crayon and Mount Airy resident Courtney Mathis, many have wondered how a 12-year-old child could be out so late at night — and driving a car.

        Although lawsuits stemming from Friday's events could be filed, legal experts questioned whether any criminal charges could stick.

  Do you think parents should be held responsible for their underage children's actions when they break the law?
        “The city can always try to pursue charges, but to win in court, the city would have to prove a lack of supervision — and that requires something more than the parents going to bed that night,” said Hamilton County Juvenile Court Judge Sylvia Hendon.

        The car belonged to a relative, police said, and Courtney's family did not know he had taken it.

        In 1997, Cincinnati City Council passed a temporary parental responsibility law that was made permanent in April 1999.

        The law makes it illegal for parents to “fail to supervise” a child under 18. Violating the law is an “unclassified misdemeanor,” which means no jail time.

        The first offense calls for a fine of up to $250 and/or community service. Additional offenses call for a fine of up to $500 and/or community service. But even those penalties can be waived if parents take a parent-training class designated by the city.

        Until now, the city's parental responsibility law has been used almost exclusively in cases where the child has had at least three prior adjudications in juvenile court. A check Friday indicated that Courtney had no record in Hamilton County Juvenile Court.

        Without a record, the city charge requires other evidence, such as a parent being intoxicated or not being there at all when the police knock on the door with their child in tow, Judge Hendon said.

        A state law punishes adults for contributing to the delinquency of a minor. That law carries the possibility of a six-month jail sentence.

        Again, conviction requires proof that the parent did something to encourage the child to break the law. A child sneaking out after the parents go to sleep generally isn't enough, Judge Hendon said.

        Based on the information made public so far, Hamilton County Municipal Judge Dennis Helmick agreed.

        “Now if a 12-year-old took the car and the guardian knew about it or consented, that's an entirely different legal issue,” Judge Helmick said. “It all comes down to establishing just what the parents knew and when.”

        Courtney's parents have declined to comment.

        Whether the city parental-responsibility law kicks in, other civil litigation could be filed in the weeks or months to come.

        The estate of Officer Crayon could sue Courtney's parents or the owner of the car he was driving. The owner of another car struck and damaged by Courtney during the incident may also have a claim.

        However, Ohio law caps parental liability for the willful acts of a child at $15,000, Judge Hendon said.

        Meanwhile, Courtney's family might launch its own legal actions, alleging that their son died as a result of an officer failing to follow proper procedures.

        Such allegations are far easier to make than to prove, Judge Helmick said.

        “I'm sure there will be more than one civil lawsuit filed in this. But whether they have any chance of winning is another question,” he said.

In the Line of Duty, a special section on Officer Crayon

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