The Massachusetts Appeals Court today reversed a Gloucester District Court judge’s order dismissing criminal charges against a couple who hosted a drinking party for their daughter and her teenage friends. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Leonard.
In November of 2012, Mark and Julie Leonard’s teenage daughter hosted a party at their home. The daughter’s 23-year-old boyfriend supplied beer, vodka, and tequila to the teens. During the course of the evening, Mark and Julie both arrived at home and joined their daughter and her friends in drinking alcohol. Mark also smoked marijuana with his daughter and her boyfriend. One of the teenagers drank too much and began vomiting. She asked Julie, who is a nurse, to take her to the hospital. Julie dissuaded her from going to the hospital, telling her she would receive an IV and the medical staff would stick a tube down her throat. The following morning the daughter’s friend had sobered up but was still very ill. Julie told the teen she had taken some medication from her employer (a nursing home) and gave her an injection of the substance (which was likely the anti-nausea medication Compazine). The friend felt better after receiving the shot. On some later date, the police became aware of the party and lodged criminal charges against the Leonards. They were each charged with child endangerment and Julie was charged with assault and battery with a dangerous weapon.
A district court judge dismissed the charges, ruling that the police department’s allegations did not establish probable cause that the Leonards had committed any crimes. The Commonwealth appealed and the Appeals Court reversed the district court judge’s dismissal. The crime of reckless endangerment of a child occurs when the defendant recklessly or wantonly acts in a way that creates a substantial risk of serious bodily injury to a child (or fails to take reasonable steps to prevent such a risk when there is a duty to act). The Appeals Court ruled there was probable cause to believe the Leonards had furnished alcohol to a group of teenagers and, when becoming aware that one of the teens was ill, failed to bring her to the hospital. There was also probable cause to believe a teenager with alcohol poisoning would be at risk of suffering from impairment of her digestive organs in addition to aspiration. Accordingly, the reckless endangerment charges were supported by probable cause and should not have been dismissed.
With respect to the assault and battery with a dangerous weapon charge against Julie, the Appeals Court first concluded in this context, the syringe constituted a dangerous weapon. An object that can sometimes be used for innocent purposes can turn into a weapon if it is used improperly. For example, a pencil is not a dangerous weapon when it is being used to write a note, but it becomes a dangerous weapon when it is thrown at someone’s eyes. In this case, the Court said Julie’s use of a syringe to inject an unknown medication into a teenager without knowing if the teenager would react badly to the medication transformed the syringe from an innocent object into a dangerous weapon. Further, the teenager receiving the injection was a minor who had recently been extremely drunk and sick. The Court questioned her ability to consent to the injection and said there was probable cause to establish the elements of assault and battery with a dangerous weapon.
The case will now be returned to Gloucester District Court where the Leonards will need to decide if they want to resolve the case by way of a plea or go to trial. This case highlights the considerations parents must make regarding teenage drinking parties. While many parents would understandingly rather have their teens in a safe location instead of driving around, allowing teens to drink in their homes presents issues of criminal liability.