A mother who left her sleeping child in a car seat with the car running while she shopped at a grocery store has lost her appeal of a conviction for contributing to the delinquency of a minor.
Although store employees confirmed the mother had asked them to watch the car with her child and two dogs, they also testified they were unable to keep up surveillance and also perform their jobs over a period 45 minutes to an hour. The Court of Appeals upheld the conviction under Va. Code § 18.2-371.
According to the evidence, Tiffany Miller double-parked her car in a fire lane in front of the store on May 1, 2013. The child she left in the car seat appeared to be between one and two years old. Miller left the windows open and the car running.
Once inside, she approached an employee and asked him to “watch her car outside for about five minutes.” He said he stayed there for over 30 minutes, then asked a coworker handling the lot to take watch. She said she would watch the child “as much as she could,” but she had to handle shopping carts and go in and out of the store.
After about five to 10 minutes, the second employee saw Miller come out, remove the car keys and go back inside. In another 20 to 30 minutes, the second employee went back into the store and told the managers about the car with the child. A store manager wrote down the license plate and, after observing the unattended car for about 20 minutes, called the police.
Miller left before police arrived, but an officer followed up at her home. Miller acknowledged the car and child belonged to her, but said store employees had agreed “to watch the child for her.” A jury convicted the mother and recommended an $800 fine for the misdemeanor offense.
On appeal, Miller said there was insufficient evidence that she had left the child “without parental care or guardianship.”
The jury was not wrong in refusing to consider the store employees, “unwittingly pressed into service,” as “guardians” of the child under the statute, wrote Judge Marla Graff Decker in the court’s published March 31 opinion in Miller v. Commonwealth.
Miller left the child “merely so that she could shop or conduct other business in a store for a significant period of time,” Decker wrote. “The child could easily have been kidnapped or taken inadvertently in a theft of the car, hurt in a collision with another car while double parked in the fire lane, or injured by the dogs in the car,” she said.
Asking strangers to watch the child enhanced the danger, the court said, and did not show that the mother’s absence from her young son was “reasonable.”