Hall v. State

Decision Date23 June 2016
Docket NumberNo. 50,50
CourtCourt of Special Appeals of Maryland

CRIMINAL LAW - CHILD NEGLECT STATUTE - SUFFICIENCY OF THE EVIDENCE - The evidence presented in the circuit court, even when viewed in a light most favorable to the State, was not sufficient to support Petitioner's conviction under the criminal child neglect statute. Section 3-602.1 of the Criminal Law Article requires that the parent's conduct be such that it creates a substantial risk of harm to the physical health of the child and that a reasonable parent would not engage in such conduct.

Circuit Court for Montgomery County, Maryland

Criminal Case No. 122148

Barbera, C.J., *Battaglia, Greene, Adkins, McDonald, Watts, Hotten, JJ.

Opinion by Battaglia, J.

Barbera, C.J. and McDonald, J., concur

Greene, Watts, and Hotten, JJ., dissent

*Battaglia, J., now retired, participated in the hearing and conference of this case while an active member of this Court; after being recalled pursuant to the Constitution, Article IV, Section 3A, she also participated in the decision and adoption of this opinion.

This case concerns Maryland's criminal child neglect statute, Section 3-602.1 of the Criminal Law Article, Maryland Code (2012 Repl. Vol.), which defines "neglect" as "the intentional failure to provide necessary assistance and resources for the physical needs or mental health of a minor that creates a substantial risk of harm to the minor's physical health or a substantial risk of mental injury to the minor."1 The statute carries a penalty of "imprisonment not exceeding 5 years or a fine not exceeding $5,000 or both." Maryland Code (2012 Repl. Vol.), Section 3-602.1(c) of the Criminal Law Article.

Beverly Annetta Hall, the Petitioner, had been convicted by a jury in the Circuit Court for Montgomery County of neglect of her minor son and was sentenced to twenty days' incarceration. Ms. Hall appealed the judgment of the Circuit Court to the Court of Special Appeals, arguing that the definition of "neglect" contained in Section 3-602.1(a)(5)(i) of the Criminal Law Article was unconstitutionally vague and that the evidence was insufficient to support her conviction. The Court of Special Appeals affirmed the judgment of the Circuit Court, and we granted certiorari to address the following questions:

1. As an issue of first impression, is Md. Code Ann., Crim. Law § 3-602.1, the criminal neglect of a minor statute, unconstitutional because it is vague?
2. Was the evidence sufficient to support conviction for neglect of a minor?

Hall v. State, 444 Md. 638, 120 A.3d 766 (2015). For the reasons that follow, we assume, without having to decide, that the criminal neglect of a minor statute is constitutional but reverse the judgment of the Court of Special of Appeals, because we hold that the evidence was insufficient to support Hall's conviction for criminal child neglect.

Early in 2013, Beverly Hall was charged by criminal information in the Circuit Court for Montgomery County with one count of neglect of her minor son A.,2 in violation of Section 3-602.1 of the Criminal Law Article,3 ostensibly for having, over atwo day period, beginning on February 24 and ending on February 26, 2012, left A. under the supervision of his fourteen-year-old sister, D. Ms. Hall filed a motion to dismiss the charge, arguing, among other things, that Section 3-602.1 was unconstitutionally vague, because the statute "fail[ed] to inform the ordinary person what conduct is prohibited by its enactment[,]" and "fail[ed] to delineate at which point personal parenting choices escalate to neglect, [leading] to arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement." The motion was denied orally by the circuit court judge who remonstrated that Section 3-602.1 of the Criminal Law Article contained an "awful broad definition of neglect," but determined that it was not vague:

I understand the argument, and I understand what the defense is saying here and I guess the bottom line is you may win this argument upstairs. I don't know, but I'm not going to - I just don't find it to be void for vagueness... I'm not going to find that the statute is void for vagueness. You know, that's something the Court of Special Appeals is going to have to do.

The evidence subsequently adduced at trial, taken in the light most favorable to the State,4 reflected that in the Fall of 2011, Ms. Hall, her fiancé, and three children—two daughters, thirteen-year-old D. and ten-year-old M., and a son, three-year-old A.—wereliving in a single family home on Lima Drive in Silver Spring, Maryland. Nyree Wannall, a licensed clinical social worker with Montgomery County Child Welfare, had been providing services to Ms. Hall's family since May of 2011.5 Ms. Wannall would perform home visits with Ms. Hall and her family two times monthly, except during the children's summer vacation when all three visited their maternal grandmother in Florida.

Based on Ms. Wannall's observations during her home visits, three-year-old A. "ran rampant[,]" "was very, very difficult to control[,]" and was "very active." Ms. Wannall described A.'s behavior as: "[y]ou would be there during a home visit, and he would pick up something, and it wouldn't be surprising if he picked something up and threw it at his sister, or threw it at the TV, and just was always moving." During one of Ms. Wannall's home visits in September of 2011, A. threw a bottle at his sister's face, threw a bottle at the T.V., and bit Ms. Wannall's foot. He then opened the closed front door of the residence, ran outside, and entered the truck of a postal worker who was in the neighborhood, all during the time his mother was present. D., A.'s sister, retrieved A. from the mail truck, and Ms. Hall did not attempt to control or discipline A. during this episode.

During Ms. Wannall's home visits, she would meet with Ms. Hall and the children and would discuss "issues that may have come up with the individuals in the house[.]" A recurring issue raised during Ms. Wannall's discussions with Hall was that "[D.] needed to spend her time on her studies in school, needed to be a child and not have as many responsibilities in the home[,]" and "[D.] having too many responsibilities with [A.]" ByFebruary 15, 2012, Ms. Hall had agreed with Ms. Wannall that "[A.] was too difficult for [D.] to watch[,]" and that she "would only allow [D.] to watch [M.], her younger sister."

During the afternoon of Wednesday, February 22, 2012, D. (now fourteen years of age) and M. had finished the school day and went to A.'s babysitter to pick him up. After bringing A. home, D. was upstairs doing her homework, but came downstairs to find that the front door was open and A. was missing; Ms. Hall was not present at 4:30pm that day, Officer Jim Walsh, responding to a call at a different location, found A. without supervision, wearing only a t-shirt and a diaper, whereupon the Officer went looking for A.'s parents. D. and M. approached Officer Walsh and stated that they "didn't know [A.] got out." Officer Walsh then brought A. back to the house on Lima Drive and retrieved Hall's phone number from D. and attempted to call Ms. Hall "at least five" times. He was unable to contact her, and did not recall whether he had left any voicemail messages but left A. under the supervision of D. Ms. Wannall learned of this incident the following day, on February 23, 2012, but did not contact Ms. Hall, as she did not want to interfere with any investigation that might be triggered by Officer Walsh reporting the incident to Child Protective Services.

According to D., A.'s escape from the home on February 22nd was the third time that she had gone to the playground to retrieve him while he was under her supervision. On a previous occasion, although police had been notified, D. was able to retrieve A. before the police arrived at the playground. The police did follow-up, and came to the house on Lima Drive and instructed D. to have Ms. Hall contact them. D., however, didnot inform Ms. Hall of any of these occasions on which A. had escaped to the playground.

On Friday, the 24th of February, Ms. Hall and her fiancé attempted to bring the children to their godmother's home in Prince George's County, where the children would spend the weekend. Ms. Hall, however, was unable to locate the godmother and returned home.

Once home, the children unpacked their belongings, placed some food in the refrigerator, and got ready for bed by taking baths and changing into their "night clothes." Ms. Hall did not tell the children where she was going or how long she would be gone, but left an emergency cell phone with D. and told her to call if she needed anything. Ms. Hall also told D. that she would call her "when she [got] to her destination, because she [had] to charge her phone." Ms. Hall and her fiancé then left at around 10:00 or 11:00 p.m., and D. locked the door behind them.

Following Ms. Hall's departure, the children began watching a movie in the living room. While watching the movie, A., M., and ultimately D., fell asleep. D. then awoke between midnight and 1:00 a.m. to find that A. was no longer on the couch. D. searched the house for A. to no avail and noticed that the front door to the residence was open. D. attempted to call Hall three to four times, but each of the calls went straight to voicemail. D. also called the fiancé, whose phone number was programed in the emergency phone, but no one answered. D. thought she heard someone pick up on one of them but the person on the other line hung up shortly thereafter.

After failing to reach her mother, D. called the police and searched the neighborhood, while M. stayed at the house. After D. returned without having found A., she made several additional calls to the police. Two police officers, including Officer Rodney Campbell, arrived around 2:30 am and informed D. that they had found A.

Shortly after 2:00 a.m., Officer Campbell had responded to a call...

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