Family Law Keyed to Weisberg

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Topic /161
Chronister v. Brenneman

Citation. Chronister v. Brenneman, 742 A.2d 190, 1999 PA Super 284, 1999 Pa. Super. LEXIS 4042 (Pa. Super. Ct. Nov. 24, 1999)

Brief Fact Summary. Appellant challenged the trial court’s entry of a protection order based upon his corporal punishment of his daughter.

Synopsis of Rule of Law. Pennsylvania law includes a parental privilege against criminal claims that involve corporal punishment. Such a privilege should be read in congruence with the PFA requirements.

Facts. Appellant administered corporal punishment on his sixteen-year-old daughter in the form of hitting her four to five times across the buttocks with a folded belt for lying. The daughter testified that the punishment was painful and made her cry. She reported the incident to her older half-sister, who contacted CYS and reported the incident. Later that evening appellant and his girlfriend had a discussion with the daughter regarding the rules of the house. Shortly thereafter, appellant left the table and retrieved a pistil from the cupboard, looked at the gun, walked by his daughter and proceeded upstairs. He testified that he had remembered that he left the gun downstairs and retrieved it, checked to make sure it was unloaded, then took it upstairs where he stores his firearms. The next day a Petition for Protection From Abuse [PFA] was filed. The daughter testified regarding the facts and also being frightened and intimidated by the incident as well as by appellant’s st
atements that similar punishment would follow. Appellant testified that his actions were solely designed to discipline his daughter. The court entered the subject PFA order, and the present appeal followed.

Issue. Did the court err in finding that appellant’s actions resulted in a need for a PFA order?

Held. The trial court erred because appellant’s actions did not constitute abuse under the statute.
The Court notes that nothing in the opinion should be construed as either approval or disapproval of appellant’s choice of discipline. It is not for the Court to dictate how a parent should discipline their children. The law allows a parent to administer corporal punishment. Appellant’s motivation appears to be beyond reproach, and nothing suggests the acts were designed as anything but punishment. There is no evidence of malevolence or an attempt to terrorize his daughter.

Intent is an important element, but this does not mean that actions could not amount to abuse regardless of intent. Abuse is defined as attempting to cause or intentional, knowingly or recklessly causing bodily injury. Bodily injury is an impairment of physical condition or substantial pain. In the present case there is no evidence of anything more than a temporary painful condition. Nor is there evidence of bodily impairment.

Pennsylvania criminal law allows as a defense a parental privilege to administer corporal punishment where the force is not designed to cause or known to create a substantial risk of causing death, serious bodily injury, disfigurement, extreme pain, or mental distress or gross degradation. If the present activity were viewed as violating the PFA Act then a parent could exercise this privilege only to suffer the consequence of losing custody of the child.

Dissent. An accurate view of the record reveals appellant’s punishment was severe enough to cause bruising and that he handled her severely enough to leave imprints from his hands on her body. This, in addition to appellant’s need to remove his gun in his daughter’s presence warrants the protection from abuse order. The majority fails to consider testimony from the daughter that she received a bruise on her thigh and handprints from being ht by her father. The majority thereby disregards the trial court’s factual findings and its credibility determinations. Nothing in the statute requires the pain to be of a continuing, it need only be substantial.

Discussion. The majority found that the evidence did not warrant a finding requiring the PFA order, particularly considering the criminal parental privilege regarding corporal punishment. The dissent believed that the majority misinterpreted the evidence and disregarded the findings of fact of the trial court.