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September 17, 2018

How Rhode Island changed its child abuse law after Lima

Our casebook mentions how New York amended its drug statutes after Ryan, but I think it also notable how the Rhode Island legislature responded to the Lima case.  Here is the story via a subsequent Rhode Island ruling, State v. Sivo, 925 A.2d 901 (R.I. 2007):

In Lima, the defendant was convicted of first-degree child abuse for lowering a small child into a bathtub of scalding water, causing him to suffer permanent disfigurement or disability.  The child abuse statute implicated in Lima, § 11-9-5.3(a), provided, in pertinent part, that "[w]henever any * * * [caretaker] * * * abuses [a] child by inflicting upon said child a physical injury, to the extent the child is permanently disfigured or disabled, he or she shall be guilty of child abuse in the first degree * * *." General Laws 1956 (1981 Reenactment) § 11-9-5.3, as amended by P.L.1983, ch. 179, § 1.   Evidence introduced at trial showed that the defendant told the child's father that she had intentionally put the child in the bathtub to wash him, but had not first checked the water temperature, which, unbeknownst to the defendant, was far too hot.  Lima, 546 A.2d at 771.  The trial justice instructed the jury on the elements of the child abuse statute, but did not instruct the jury that intent was a necessary element of the crime charged. Id.   The defendant appealed, alleging that the trial justice committed error when he refused to instruct the jury that an intentional act was required. Id. This Court held that the trial justice's refusal to so instruct the jury constituted reversible error. Id. at 772.  Because the child abuse statute in place at the time was entirely devoid of words of intent, we adopted a standard similar to that set forth in the Model Penal Code (MPC), requiring that "[w]hen the culpability sufficient to establish a material element of an offense is not prescribed by law, such element is established if a person acts purposely, knowingly or recklessly with respect thereto." Lima, 546 A.2d at 772 (quoting Model Penal Code, § 2.02(3) at 226 (A.L.I. 1985)).  Pursuant to this standard, we directed the trial justice on remand to instruct the jury accordingly, to "protect [][the] defendant from a conviction predicated upon an act devoid of mens rea while at the same time protecting a class of defenseless victims from physical abuse." Id. 

In the years after Lima, the General Assembly enacted numerous amendments to the first-degree child abuse statute.  What is most significant to the instant litigation is that, in 1995, the General Assembly added words of intent, prescribing punishment only for those individuals who “knowingly or intentionally” inflict a serious bodily injury upon a child.  These statutory words of intent effectively superseded the MPC-inspired words of intent we adopted in Lima..... [where] our concern was the possibility that the jury convicted the defendant without finding that she had acted with a mens rea.

As I mentioned in class, I will be eager to start our next class by hearing comments on why we think New York's legislature amended one statute to eliminate a mens rea requirement, but Rhode Island's legislature amended a distinct statute to add/enhance a required mens rea.   Or, better yet, start the discussion in the comments.

September 17, 2018 in Course materials and schedule, Notable real cases | Permalink


My first guess as to why New York amended a statute eliminating a mens rea requirement while Rhode Island amended a statute to enhance one is subject matter and the accompanying sympathy (or lack thereof).

In the New York case, the issue at hand is drug dealing; as we all know, everyone wants to look like they're "tough on crime", and eliminating the mens rea requirement made it easier to prosecute drug users and dealers.

In the Rhode Island case, however, the issue is child abuse - specifically, whether a caretaker should be held liable for harm caused to the child even if it was unintentional. Although obviously nobody wants to seem "soft" on child abuse, I would imagine the legislature (and the public) is sympathetic to caretakers and/or parents who could hurt a child by honest mistake. Think about it; we've all seen a child run full-tilt into the corner of a table and bash their head, and I'm sure every legislator has too. Should every babysitter who has been present when this happened be held liable?

Posted by: Kristen Eby | Sep 18, 2018 6:34:34 PM

NY = Utilitarian motivations
RI = Retributivist motivations

The NY statute was ineffective, because it would rarely, if ever, allow for convictions (assuming justice is done to the utmost). Under the NY statute, it was functionally impossible for any prosecutor to prove that any defendant definitively knew the weight of some hallucinogen in whatever medium. By allowing for strict liability, with regards to the element in question, NY law suddenly becomes more efficient. The efficiency is gained because that then eases the amount of investigatory energy required by the State. Granted, that increase in efficiency may be gained at the cost of future defendants’ liberty but there are greater societal concerns. Sounds utilitarian, does it not?

The RI statute was also ineffective, because its lack of a mens rea requirement cast a net too wide. The absence of a mens rea requirement in regards to this specific statute, created law that would allow for non-blameworthy defendants to get caught under the wide-ranging auspices of the benevolent RI government. The incorporation of MPC-like culpability taxonomies is an effort, in this case, to ensure that only those that are truly blameworthy suffer the wrath. Retributivism?

Thus, the moves we see, RI adding a mens rea requirement and NY subtracting one, seem to be moves towards efficiency with NY motivated by utilitarian notions and RI by retributivist ideals.

It appears that the mens rea debate in each of these cases is primarily a vehicle for a larger, never-ending, effort to further those underlying moral (or immoral) questions.

Each move is a stumble in the right direction.

Posted by: Patrick Ojeil | Sep 18, 2018 10:46:34 PM

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