The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today concluded for the first time that parents have the right to spank their children. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Dorvil.
The defendant was convicted of assault and battery following his jury-waived trial in Brockton District Court. In May of 2011, two Brockton police officers were arriving at the station when they noticed a commotion at the bus terminal across the street. The officers testified that the defendant was yelling “shut up, shut up” at a young child and a woman on the sidewalk near the bus station. One of the officers saw the defendant kick the child on the buttocks and then hit the child on the buttocks with his hand. Immediately after the kick and hit, the woman picked up the child, who looked frightened and was crying, in an apparent attempt to shield her from the defendant, who was described by the officer as looking very upset and angry.
The officers approached and led the defendant away from the child (identified as the defendant’s daughter, who was almost three years old) and the woman (the child’s mother). The defendant told the police that he was horsing around with his daughter and trying to lift her up with his legs. He denied kicking her. However, he told the police that he was “disciplining his child” when he spanked her with his hand, claiming that she disobeyed him when he instructed her to go to her mother. The defendant was arrested. He waived his right to a jury trial and allowed a judge to determine his guilt or innocence. The judge found him not guilty of assault and battery with a dangerous weapon (the kicking charge) but guilty of assault and battery (for striking the child with his hand). The trial judge concluded that it was inappropriate for the defendant to discipline his daughter with a spanking in public.
The defendant appealed and the Appeals Court affirmed his conviction for assault and battery. While acknowledging that it had previously ruled that a parent has the right to use reasonable force to discipline a minor child, the Appeals Court concluded that the defendant’s demeanor (angry instead of calm and controlled) along with the child’s lack of capacity to understand the discipline criminalized his conduct in this case.
The Supreme Judicial Court reversed the Appeals Court and the trial judge and ruled that the defendant’s conduct was protected by a parental privilege to use force to discipline a child. The Court noted that every American jurisdiction allows parents to use reasonable force to control their children, and the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution allows parents the liberty to “direct the upbringing” and education of their children. While conceding that many people oppose the use of force against children, the Court said that moderate corporal punishment is widely accepted in the United States. Ultimately, the Court held that a parent may use corporal punishment against a child if it: (1) is reasonable; (2) is reasonably related to safeguarding or promoting the child’s welfare; and (3) does not cause or substantially risk causing: physical harm other than fleeting pain or minor marks; severe mental distress; or gross degradation. In considering the reasonableness of a physical punishment, a judge or jury may consider the nature of the child’s misbehavior, the age of the child, and the physical and mental condition of the child. In this case, the Court determined that the defendant acted reasonably in spanking his child and accordingly reversed his conviction for assault and battery.
While the defendant ultimately prevailed in this case, parents who choose to spank their children are taking a risk that if arrested, a judge or jury will conclude that their conduct was unreasonable. Given many people’s beliefs that children should not be spanked under any circumstance, it’s not a certainty that parents who spank their children will be immune from prosecution, and ultimately, conviction.