Endangering the welfare of a child under 18 Pa.C.S.A. § 4304(a)(1); Failure to Use Appropriate Restraint System in Car for Hire
Commonwealth v. Howard, 2019 WL 6138949 (Pa. Super. 2019)(unreported), allocatur granted May 11, 2020, appeal docket 8 WAP 2020.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted allocatur in this case to determine whether there was sufficient evidence to convict a mother for knowingly endangering the welfare of her daughter (endangering the welfare of children or EWOC) under the Crimes Code, 18 Pa.C.S.A. § 4304(a)(1), which provides that “[a] parent, guardian, or other person supervising the welfare of a child under 18 years of age … commits [the offense of EWOC] if [s]he knowingly endangers the welfare of the child by violating a duty of care, protection, or support.”
Waylynn Marie Howard (Howard) hired a “car for hire” to drive her and her three-year-old daughter, which ended in a three-vehicle accident. The vehicle did not have a car seat for Howard’s daughter, who was sitting in the backseat alone without a seatbelt. Howard was convicted of EWOC under 18 Pa.C.S.A. § 4304(a)(1) for failure to use an appropriate restraint system for the child.. Howard appealed to the Superior Court arguing that the Commonwealth failed to establish, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Howard knowingly endangered the welfare of her daughter.
The Superior Court affirmed Howard’s EWOC conviction, reasoning that the evidence was sufficient and supported the conclusion that Howard was aware that her failure to properly restrain her daughter could result in harm in the event of an accident because the Commonwealth’s evidence provided that Howard placed her daughter in the backseat without an “appropriate child passenger restraint system,” did not fasten her daughter’s seatbelt, and told the responding police to the accident that she feared her daughter would fly to the front of the vehicle and hit the windshield. Slip op. at 4. Further, the court reasoned that Howard was aware that the circumstances “could threaten the child’s physical or psychological welfare,” which is the standard of proof necessary for the threat of physical harm in an EWOC conviction. Slip op. at 5.
Judge Nichols, in dissent, asserted that, in light of public policy, Howard’s conduct should have been governed by the Motor Vehicle Code (MVC) and not the Crimes Code because Howard was not the operator of the vehicle and the Crimes Code, therefore, did not apply to Howard’s situation. The Motor Vehicle Code, 75 Pa.C.S. § 4581, provides:
Any person who is operating a passenger car . . . and who transports a child under four years of age . . . shall fasten such child securely in a child passenger restraint system. . . .” “Anyone who fails to comply with the provisions of subsection (a)(1) . . . commits a summary offense and shall, upon conviction, be sentenced to pay a fine of $75.”
75 Pa.C.S. § 4581(a)(1)(i) – (b). In Judge Nichols’ opinion, the Commonwealth was “exceedingly harsh” and overreached Howard’s charge by applying the Crimes Code instead of the MVC, which would have resulted in lesser punishment, if any, when the popularity of ride sharing services is increasing and will likely result in more parents travelling with young children that will have to “decide whether to accept a ride from a driver whose vehicle does not does not contain an appropriate car seat.” Dissent Slip Op at 2-3.
The Supreme Court granted allocatur to examine:
Was the evidence insufficient to establish, beyond a reasonable doubt, that [Petitioner] knowingly endangered the welfare of her daughter when she put her in the backseat of a car-for-hire without a seatbelt or restraint system, and there was no indicia that the driver was driving unsafely?