The Massachusetts Appeals Court yesterday upheld the assault and battery conviction against a man who beat his fiancee’s eight-year-old son. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Lark.
A counselor at the victim’s school called his mother (the defendant’s fiancee) and said the victim and another student had been involved in an altercation. As a result, the victim needed to go home. His mother sent the defendant the pick up the victim. When the defendant arrived at the school, the victim did not want to leave with him and resisted getting into his Jeep. A witness saw the defendant yell at the victim and continued to watch as the defendant got into the driver’s seat and the victim got into the back seat. The Jeep had tinted windows, but the witness was still able to see the defendant reach into the back seat and hit the victim several times while the victim held his hands in the air. The school counselor saw the events unfold from a window in the school and she ran outside. As she approached the Jeep, she witnessed the defendant hit the victim while they were both in the vehicle. The beating was violent enough that the first witness reported the Jeep was “rocking” back and forth. To escape the beating, the victim jumped out of the Jeep and returned to the school. The defendant left and a friend of the victim’s mother picked up the victim later in the day, noticing that the victim had a scratch over his eye. The defendant was charged with, and convicted of, assault and battery. He appealed, arguing that the parental discipline defense shielded him from criminal liability.
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court clarified the parental discipline defense last year in a case called Commonwealth v. Dorvil. It had long been assumed that parents (or individuals acting as parents) have the right to use corporal punishment to discipline their children. There is no American jurisdiction that forbids reasonable physical discipline and the federal constitution allows parents to “direct the upbringing” of their children, which is widely considered to include using physical punishment. The SJC said while corporal punishment is permissible in Massachusetts, it must: (1) involve a reasonable amount of force; (2) reasonably be related to promoting the child’s welfare (including punishing the child for misbehavior); and (2) not cause or risk causing gross degradation, severe mental distress, or physical harm other than minor marks or pain. In this case, there was no argument that the defendant was not acting in place of the victim’s parent. However, the Appeals Court determined his conduct did not satisfy the elements of the parental discipline defense. The court ruled the jury reasonably could have concluded the defendant used an excessive amount of force (so much force, in fact, that the Jeep rocked back and forth) and that the beating was not intended to promote the child’s welfare. Accordingly, the defendant was properly convicted of assault and battery.
This case should serve as an important warning for parents (or their substitutes) that the SJC’s recent endorsement of corporal punishment does not create an open season for abuse of children. Courts and juries will carefully consider whether a parental beating of a child is reasonable, and criminal liability will still attach when too much force is used.