State v. Miranda

Decision Date30 June 1998
Docket NumberNo. 15467,15467
CourtConnecticut Supreme Court
PartiesSTATE of Connecticut v. Santos MIRANDA.

Robert J. Scheinblum, Assistant State's Attorney, with whom, on the brief, were Michael Dearington, State's Attorney, and Elpedio Vitale, Assistant State's Attorney, for appellant (State).

Susan M. Cormier, Hartford, with whom was Bageshree Ranade, Legal Intern, for appellee (defendant).

Mario T. Gaboury filed a brief for the Center for the Study of Crime Victims' Rights, Remedies and Resources, University of New Haven, as amicus curiae.

Before CALLAHAN, C.J., and BORDEN, BERDON, NORCOTT, KATZ, PALMER and McDONALD, JJ.

KATZ, Associate Justice.

The issue in this appeal is whether a person who is not the biological or legal parent of a child but who establishes a familial relationship with a woman and her infant child, voluntarily assumes responsibility for the care and welfare of the child, and considers himself the child's stepfather, has a legal duty to protect the child from abuse, such that the breach of that duty exposes the person to criminal liability pursuant to General Statutes § 53a-59 (a)(3). 1 After a court trial, the defendant, Santos Miranda, was convicted of six counts of assault in the first degree in violation of § 53a-59 (a)(3), 2 and one count of risk of injury to a child in violation of General Statutes § 53-21. 3 The court concluded that the defendant had established a familial relationship with the victim and her mother, that his failure to help and protect the child from abuse constituted a gross deviation from the standard of conduct that a reasonable person would observe in the situation, and that such reckless conduct resulted in serious physical injuries to the child. The trial court found the defendant not guilty of nineteen counts of assault in the first degree. Those counts had charged him with either personally inflicting the injuries or not preventing the child's mother from inflicting the injuries. 4 The court imposed a total effective sentence of forty years imprisonment.

The defendant appealed to the Appellate Court, which affirmed the conviction for risk of injury to a child, 5 but reversed the assault convictions concluding that the defendant had no legal duty to act under the circumstances of this case. State v. Miranda, 41 Conn.App. 333, 341, 675 A.2d 925 (1996). This court granted the state's petition for certification limited to the following issue: "Under the circumstances of this case, did the Appellate Court properly conclude that the defendant could not be convicted of violating General Statutes § 53a-59 (a)(3) because he had no legal duty to protect the victim from parental abuse?" State v. Miranda, 237 Conn. 932, 677 A.2d 1372 (1996). We conclude that, based upon the trial court's findings that the defendant had established a familial relationship with the victim's mother and her two children, had assumed responsibility for the welfare of the children, and had taken care of them as though he were their father, the defendant had a legal duty to protect the victim from abuse. 6 Accordingly we reverse the judgment of the Appellate Court.

As set forth in its memorandum of decision, the trial court found the following facts. The defendant commenced living with his girlfriend and her two children in an apartment in September, 1992. On January 27, 1993, the defendant was twenty-one years old, his girlfriend was sixteen, her son was two, and her daughter, the victim in this case, born on September 21, 1992, was four months old. Although he was not the biological father of either child, the defendant took care of them and considered himself to be their stepfather. He represented himself as such to the people at Meriden Veteran's Memorial Hospital where, on January 27, 1993, the victim was taken for treatment of her injuries following a 911 call by the defendant that the child was choking on milk. Upon examination at the hospital, it was determined that the victim had multiple rib fractures that were approximately two to three weeks old, two skull fractures that were approximately seven to ten days old, a brachial plexus injury to her left arm, a rectal tear that was actively "oozing blood" and bilateral subconjunctival nasal hemorrhages. On the basis of extensive medical evidence, the trial court determined that the injuries had been sustained on three or more occasions and that none of the injuries had been the result of an accident, a fall, events that took place at the time of the child's birth, cardiopulmonary resuscitation, a blocked air passageway or the child choking on milk. Rather, the trial court found that the injuries, many of which created a risk of death, had been caused by great and deliberate force.

The trial court further found in accordance with the medical evidence that, as a result of the nature of these injuries, at the time they were sustained the victim would have screamed inconsolably, and that her injuries would have caused noticeable physical deformities, such as swelling, bruising and poor mobility, and finally, that her intake of food would have been reduced. The court also determined that anyone who saw the child would have had to notice these injuries, the consequent deformities and her reactions. Indeed, the trial court found that the defendant had been aware of the various bruises on her right cheek and the subconjunctival nasal hemorrhages, as well as the swelling of the child's head, that he knew she had suffered a rectal tear, as well as rib fractures posteriorly on the left and right sides, and that he was aware that there existed a substantial and unjustifiable risk that the child was exposed to conduct that created a risk of death. The trial court concluded that despite this knowledge, the defendant "failed to act to help or aid [the child] by promptly notifying authorities of her injuries, taking her for medical care, removing her from her circumstances and guarding her from future abuses. As a result of his failure to help her, the child was exposed to conduct which created a risk of death to her and the child suffered subsequent serious physical injuries...."

The trial court concluded that the defendant had a legal duty to protect the health and well-being of the child based on the undisputed facts that he had established a familial relationship with the child's mother and her two children, that he had voluntarily assumed responsibility for the care and welfare of both children, and that he considered himself the victim's stepfather. On the basis of these circumstances, the trial court found the defendant guilty of one count of § 53-21 and six counts of § 53a-59 (a)(3). 7

I

Before addressing the certified issue of whether the facts and circumstances of this case were sufficient to create a legal duty to protect the victim from parental abuse pursuant to § 53a-59 (a)(3), we turn our attention to the question of whether, even if we assume such a duty exists, the failure to act can create liability under that statute. In other words, by failing to act in accordance with a duty, does a defendant commit a crime, such as assault in the first degree in violation of § 53a-59 (a)(3), that is not specifically defined by statute in terms of an omission to act but only in terms of cause and result? 8 Whether a failure to discharge a legal duty to protect a child constitutes an omission punishable as an assault is a question of law subject to de novo review by this court. State v. Solek, 242 Conn. 409, 419, 699 A.2d 931 (1997).

The trend of Anglo-American law has been toward enlarging the scope of criminal liability for failure to act in those situations in which the common law or statutes have imposed an affirmative responsibility for the safety and well-being of others. See generally 1 W. LaFave & A. Scott, Substantive Criminal Law (1986) § 3.3; annot., 61 A.L.R.3d 1207 (1975); annot., 100 A.L.R.2d 483 (1965). Criminal liability of parents based on a failure to act in accordance with common-law affirmative duties to protect and care for their children is well recognized in many jurisdictions. See, e.g., People v. Stanciel, 153 Ill.2d 218, 180 Ill.Dec. 124, 606 N.E.2d 1201 (1992) (mother guilty of homicide by allowing known abuser to assume role of disciplinarian over child); Smith v. State, 408 N.E.2d 614 (Ind.App.1980) (mother held criminally responsible for failing to prevent fatal beating of child by her lover); State v. Walden, 306 N.C. 466, 293 S.E.2d 780 (1982) (mother guilty of assault for failure to prevent beating); State v. Williquette, 129 Wis.2d 239, 385 N.W.2d 145 (1986) (mother guilty of child abuse for allowing child to be with person known previously to have been abusive and who subsequently abused child again). 9 In light of this duty to protect and care for children, courts in these jurisdictions have concluded that, where this duty exists and injury results, the failure to protect the child from harm will be "deemed to be the cause of those injuries" and the person bearing the duty may face criminal sanctions. State v. Peters, 116 Idaho 851, 855, 780 P.2d 602 (1989).

Although our research has revealed no case by this court in which we expressly have held a parent criminally liable for failure to act to save his or her child from harm, 10 the Appellate Court has recognized that criminal liability may attach not only to overt acts but also to an omission to act when there is a legal duty to do so. State v. Miranda, supra, 41 Conn.App. at 339, 675 A.2d 925; State v. Jones, 34 Conn.App. 807, 812-13, 644 A.2d 355, cert. denied, 231 Conn. 909, 648 A.2d 158 (1994) (defendant's failure to call ambulance or seek help for his obviously injured child indicated "conscious disregard of a substantial risk of death" within meaning of § 53a-59 [a] ). We agree that criminal conduct can arise not only through overt acts, but also by an omission to act...

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