Free-Range Kids

New York Dad Should Not Face Homicide Charges for Accidentally Killing Twin 1-Year-Olds in a Hot Car

Laws criminalizing the act of leaving children in cars are misguided.


Juan Rodriguez, a doting upstate New York dad, forgot his twin one-year-olds in the back seat when he went to work on Friday. When he got back to his car at the end of the day, he realized his mistake and started screaming. They were dead.

Adding to Rodriguez's almost incomprehensible grief, the state decided to charge him with manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide, and endangering the welfare of a child. The judge set his bail at $100,000—as if Rodriguez is a risk to others. As if he hasn't suffered enough. As if this will teach the rest of us some sort of lesson.

It will not.

On social media, many people understand this. "There but for the grace of God go I," they write. Plenty of others are saying this man is guilty because no decent person would ever forget their kids in the car.

But we know that stories like this are not unheard of and that, in fact, humans are human. A baby in a car seat, facing backward, making no sound—it is all too easy to forget they are there and proceed on autopilot to work.

For this reason, many states have made it illegal to let a child wait in the car more than a few minutes, or at all. The stated desire is to prevent tragedies like these. But if the father had remembered that his kids were in the car, he would have taken them out. The fear of breaking the law does nothing to prevent a tragedy like this.

This story is particularly hard to bear because the dad is a disabled war vet, a social worker, and a conscientious father who lives for his kids. Now he will be held up as a reason more states should pass even more draconian no-kids-left-in-the-car laws. These laws would make sense if kids died the instant a parent dashed into the store for a gallon of milk, but they don't. In fact, more kids die in parking lots than in parked cars.

The vast majority of kids who do die in cars either climbed in when no one was looking and weren't found until too late, or were forgotten there. They are not in danger because their parents are running brief errands. Criminalizing parents who consciously let their kids wait in the car a few minutes is not the answer.

A better solution is to publicize and spread the act of always putting something else in the back seat at the same time you put the child there: your shoe, your phone, etc. When you exit the car, it's impossible not to notice you're missing something. Fetching the item brings you to the back seat and the baby.

Public service announcements—Baby In, Shoe Off!—could save more lives than laws against letting kids wait in the car during a short errand.

A technological answer—having an alarm sound if someone is left in the car (or if the back door opened at the beginning of the trip but not the end)—would also be good, but not if this makes it illegal to let the kids wait in the car a few minutes, in the same way it is illegal to drive without first putting on a safety belt.

In any case, the shoe or the alarm make a lot more sense than tormenting a dad who is already living in hell.