A Niceville, Florida woman was arrested this week for child neglect when she was allegedly driving under the influence of alcohol with her three year old daughter in the car. The woman, Crystal M. Vanderschaaf, 26, was trying to switch lanes when she lost control of the car and struck another vehicle. Police charged Vanderschaaf with refusing to submit to a urine test and with felony child neglect.
Where a person fails to provide a child with care, supervision, and services necessary to maintain the child’s physical and mental health, the person may be charged with child neglect. It is a third degree felony in Florida if the neglect does not cause great bodily harm or permanent injury. This means that the person could be facing up to five years in prison.
Charging an allegedly impaired driver with child neglect for having a minor in the car is a common occurrence in Palm Beach County. However, the government faces a challenge in charging cases such as Vanderschaaf’s as felony child neglect. The government would have to prove at trial that Vanderschaaf acted with “culpable negligence.” According to Florida’s standard jury instructions in criminal cases, “culpable negligence is more than a failure to use ordinary care for others. For negligence to be called culpable negligence, it must be gross and flagrant. The negligence must be committed with an utter disregard for the safety of others. Culpable negligence is consciously doing an act or following a course of conduct that the defendant must have known, or reasonably should have known, was likely to cause death or great bodily harm.”
The more appropriate charge against Vanderschaaf is enhanced driving under the influence. Florida increases the possible penalties for driving under the influence where at the time of the offense, the driver “was accompanied in the vehicle by a person under the age of 18 years.” Nonetheless, the police routinely charge cases such as Vanderschaaf’s as child neglect because it is a felony. Enhanced DUI is a misdemeanor offense, punishable by not more than nine months in jail for a first DUI offense.
An experienced criminal defense attorney can work towards ensuring that a person in Ms. Vanderschaaf’s situation is not overcharged with a felony offense needlessly by advocating with the State Attorney’s Office on her behalf to charge the most appropriate crime, in this case, enhanced DUI.