Running into F’ville store? Don’t leave kids under 6 in the car

Tue, 06/12/2007 - 5:18pm
By: Ben Nelms

To some people a new Fayetteville ordinance may seem overly strict while to others it may even seem accommodating. Either way, the message sent June 7 by the City Council was consistent: Do not leave young children unattended.

A unanimous vote on the unattended minors ordinance gives enforcement power and a significant degree of discretion to officers encountering children under age 6 who have been left alone in vehicles or public places.

In Fayetteville last year there were 12 instances where children were found by officers to have been left alone in vehicles for various periods of time, said Police Chief Steve Heaton. So far this year there have been five cases, he said.

While perhaps viewed by some as a matter of little significance in America, especially when viewed historically, the reality is that 78 children died and 9,100 were injured nationwide in 2000-2001 after being left unattended in vehicles, Heaton said. Those numbers do not account for abductions.

Now in effect, the ordinance states that “It is unlawful for any parent, guardian or other person having custody of or control of any minor child under age 6 to leave that child unattended in any vehicle or public place for any period of time unless the child remains in plain view of the responsible person.” The responsible person must be at least 12 years of age.

Prior to the vote, Heaton said current state law adopted in 2006 provides for a felony charge as the only option if a young child is found unattended. “We wanted to give our officers an option,” Heaton said.

“The main purpose here is to give officers the option for something short of a felony and to utilize their professionalism and discretion,” Mayor Ken Steele said in agreement.

Responding to a question from Councilman Paul Oddo, Heaton said officers could issue a warning or, depending on the circumstances, a misdemeanor or a felony charge. Heaton said the city court judge also has options. The judge can agree with the charge and set the fine amount or dismiss the charge altogether.

“There was a push in the legislature to deal with the issue of leaving children unattended,” Heaton said. “This ordinance talks about endangerment as an aspect of cruelty to children. We think it is inherent that leaving children under 6 years of age unattended in a car is dangerous. As a result we thought we needed to be able to give our officers options.”

Under current state law, if someone left a child in a car for two minutes the officer would have to charge them for a felony, Heaton said. The only option is to arrest them and have them post a bond. “We would have to find somebody that can take care of them or send their children to DFACS,” he said.

The act of leaving young children unattended covers a wide range of examples. Some include leaving the child for only a minute while dropping off a video rental while others involve a greater time frame, such as grocery shopping for an extended period.

“I think what we’ve allowed the officers to do with this ordinance is to be a little more flexible in treating minor infractions,” Heaton said.

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