Is It Illegal to Leave a Child Unattended in a Car?

An overview of state laws regarding unattended children in vehicles.

As most parents know, it's a hassle to get kids in and out of a car. So, it's sometimes tempting to leave children in the vehicle while you quickly run into a store or drop something off at the cleaners. But leaving children unattended can be risky and result in serious and tragic consequences. To protect children against harm, some states have created laws prohibiting leaving unattended children in vehicles in certain circumstances. The rules vary by state, but the penalties can be quite severe depending on the level of endangerment or harm to the child.

Leaving Children Unattended in a Vehicle

Only about half of states currently have laws specifically prohibiting leaving children unattended in vehicles.

What Laws Prohibit

The laws of these states tend to focus on certain criteria, including:

  • Some states prohibit leaving children who are younger than a specified age unattended in a vehicle in certain circumstances. Depending on the state, the cutoff age might be anywhere from six to 13 years old. State laws, again, vary with regard to the age of the person who must supervise the child or children. Some states require an adult supervisor, while other states permit younger supervisors, such as a sibling who's at least 12 years old.
  • Most state laws require some sort of risk—such as extreme heat or cold, a running engine, or keys left in the vehicle—for a parent to be convicted of a violation.
  • Risk can also be established under some laws based on the duration the child is left alone. Hawaii considers any child left for more than five minutes alone in a vehicle to be at risk of injury. This limit is ten minutes in Illinois and fifteen minutes in Florida.

But, again, the specifics of these laws differ by state.

Penalties

Penalties for leaving a child unattended can be as low as $100. But in some states, like Florida, a violation can also result in jail time. And, repeat or more aggravated violations can be felonies and carry potential prison time. The consequences of a violation can also be more severe, and result in felony charges, if the violation resulted in the death or injury of a child.

Some states will even revoke the offender's driver's license.

Rescue of Unattended Children From Vehicles

When a child is found unattended and at risk, law enforcement officers (and sometimes regular citizens) are permitted to force entry into the vehicle and rescue the child. If the parent cannot be located, the child will generally be taken into the custody of the state.

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