CHILD ENDANGERMENT IN PENNSYLVANIA—FELONY OR MISDEMEANOR?
Recently a staff member with the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office was charged with child endangerment (endangering the welfare of a child – Title 18 § 4303). While this staffer isn’t an assistant district attorney, the case will, nevertheless, be prosecuted by the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office, as there is a clear conflict of interest given her current employment.
Child Endangerment – Felony or Misdemeanor Charge?
In most situations, endangering the welfare of a child is a misdemeanor of the 1st degree if it is committed by a parent, guardian, or other person who is supervising a child. A misdemeanor graded offense is committed when the perpetrator knowingly endangers the welfare of the child by violating a duty of care, protection, or support. The charge escalates to a felony offense if the actor creates a substantial risk of death or serious bodily injury. In these situations, it is graded as a felony of the 3rd degree where the maximum punishment is 7 years of state incarceration. This criminal charge can also escalate from a misdemeanor to a felony offense (ungraded felony) based simply on the child’s age, if, at the time of the offense, the child is under the age of 6. In this situation it appears that the child in question was 4 years of age. It is unclear if the staffer is charged with a felony offense because of the child’s age or because of the alleged risk which she exposed her to.
Criminal Procedure – Preliminary Hearing
Since this staffer is charged with a felony offense in Philadelphia, her case will proceed initially through the municipal court through the preliminary hearing process. I have written in previous articles and spoke about in podcasts and videos, the evidentiary burden of proof at a preliminary hearing is substantially less than at trial. The burden of proof at a preliminary hearing is, more probable or not, or what is known as “prima faciae”. It is likely this case will at least survive the preliminary hearing stage as it appears that it meets the necessary elements that a judge or jury could find this person guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
There are many options for this individual at the preliminary hearing, pre-trial, and even trial stage. Her attorney may consider waiving the preliminary hearing in exchange for downgrading the charge from a felony to a misdemeanor or may seek to do the hearing and persuade the court to downgrade the charge. If the charge is downgraded it will remain in municipal court, but the Attorney General’s office could jury demand the case which would move it to the Court of Common Pleas. While an accused can also demand a jury trial, it doesn’t often happen. Criminal penalties are often more severe following a jury trial.
Is Jail or State Prison a Possibility?
If this person is convicted of the felony offense, jail is still unlikely based on her sentencing guidelines. While we do not know her exact criminal history, it is highly unlikely that she has any prior criminal history whatsoever. If she is convicted of the felony offense her sentencing guidelines would be 3-12 months of incarceration; if convicted of a misdemeanor offense her guidelines will be restorative sanctions (probation) to 9 months of incarceration.
What about non criminal consequences?
In addition to a criminal conviction, the staffer runs the risk of losing her law license especially if she is convicted of a felony offense. Even without a conviction, a license granting body such as the Bar in Pennsylvania or New Jersey can consider mere allegations which do not necessarily result in a conviction to temporarily suspend or even disbar an attorney.
A child endangerment charge is extremely serious because they not only subject the person to a possible jail sentence, state prison, and an extended period of probation but could also cause a person to lose custody of their children.