Nearly two years after the Court of Appeals found that a custodial parent could be held criminally responsible for kidnapping his or her own child, a trial judge in Manhattan has upheld charges against a woman who locked her five children in a room with her for 80 minutes.
Criminal Court Judge Steven Statsinger (See Profile), acknowledging that custodial parents generally have a right to control or restrain their children’s movements, said that in this case the mother’s behavior was so “bizarre and irrational” and “unconnected to any legitimate parental goal” as to warrant charges of endangering and unlawful imprisonment.
Statsinger’s ruling in People v. Jordan, 2013NY076424, apparently marks the first trial-level application of People v. Leonard, 19 NY3d 323 (2012), where the Court of Appeals held that the kidnapping of one’s own child by a custodial parent is not a “legal impossibility.”
Relying on precedents from Arizona, Florida and Iowa, the New York high court said that while parents clearly have a right to control their child’s movements, there are cases when they go too far and violate the law (NYLJ, June 1, 2012).
Jordan is one of those cases, Statsinger found.
The case centers Jacqueline Jordan, who barred her five children and two adults, including a caseworker, from leaving a room at a Catherine Street women’s shelter.
Records show that on Oct. 3, 2013, Jordan locked the door, wedged a chair under the doorknob and kept the children and adults in the room with her for 80 minutes.
Jordan, who was charged with several crimes including unlawful imprisonment of her children, sought dismissal. Her attorney, Judith Stein of Manhattan, argued that upholding the charges would mean that “anytime a custodial parent prevented a very young child from leaving the residence, the parent would be guilty of” unlawful imprisonment.
Statsinger said the motion raised “important questions about the difficult line beyond which legitimate parental decisions become criminal.” But he said the Court of Appeals provided guidance in Leonard. And although that case was decided by a slim 4-3 margin, Statsinger said it established clearly that “there is no categorical immunity of a parent against a criminal charge involving unlawful restraint.”
Here, Statsinger found the mother’s conduct “too extreme to be seen as describing legitimate parental decisions” and “outside the bounds of a custodial parent’s lawful right to restrict her child’s movement.”
The judge said the mother’s behavior is unfathomable and that there is no indication that her actions were an attempt to either discipline or protect her children.
“A parent who restricts the movement of an angry or unruly child, under the reasonable belief that such is necessary to prevent the child from harming another person or damaging property, would…likely be acting on the lawful end of the Leonard spectrum,” Statsinger wrote. “Similarly, a parent who restricts the movement of a sick child so that the child will not infect others is also likely behaving lawfully. But…the court can here discern no such goal in defendant’s behavior.”
Statsinger found the facts alleged sufficient to uphold charges of unlawful imprisonment, attempted unlawful imprisonment and endangering the welfare of a child, noting that “witnessing a parent behave in an erratic and violent manner [could have a traumatic impact] on the emotional well-being of a child.”
However, he dismissed attempted assault charges involving the two adults who were barred from leaving the room and several counts of harassment brought on behalf of the children.
Assistant Manhattan District Attorney David Bornstein argued for the prosecution.