Brief Fact Summary. Defendant Pope took into her house a mother who suffered from mental illness and her three-month-old child. While in Defendant’s home, Defendant witnessed the mother beating the child who later died from the beating. Defendant was convicted of felony child abuse for having failed to take any steps to protect the child.
Synopsis of Rule of Law. A person cannot be punished as a felon for failing to fulfill a moral obligation where no legal obligation exists.
Issue. Did the circuit court err in convicting Defendant by finding her to be the principal in the first degree in the commission of the crime of child abuse?
Held. Yes. Judgment reversed.
Defendant was convicted of child abuse as a principal in the first degree under a code provision that defines the class of persons covered by the statute as a person who “was (a) the parent of, or (b) the adoptive parent of, or (c) in loco parentis to, or (d) responsible for the supervision of a minor child”. Defendant does not fall within this class of persons; she had no responsibility for the supervision of the child as contemplated by the statute because the mother was always present and Defendant had no right to usurp the role of the mother.
A person cannot be punished for failing to fulfill a moral obligation where no legal obligation exists. Defendant had no legal obligation to act and therefore she may not be punished under the statute.
A state may enact a law that obligates people to disclose knowledge of criminal acts. However the common law crime of Misprision is no longer a chargeable offense.
Discussion. This case illustrates the traditional reluctance of our criminal law to impose liability for omission to act even where the omission is clearly immoral.