Jones v. Commonwealth – Case Brief
Jones v. Commonwealth, 272 Va. 692, 636 S.E.2d 403 (2006).
Facts: An informant made purchases of narcotics at Jones’ (D) apartment. The informant witnessed several parties selling drugs and saw lookouts and weapons. Police executed a search warrant and discovered eight children ranging from infancy to eight years old. A medicine bottle containing heroin was found within reach of an eight year old child.
Jones was charged with child neglect under Virginia Code § 18.2-371.1(B)(1): “Any parent, guardian, or other person responsible for the care of a child under the age of 18 whose willful act or omission in the care of such child was so gross, wanton and culpable as to show a reckless disregard for human life shall be guilty of a Class 6 felony.”
Defendant contends that the possession and sale of narcotics at her residence and in close proximity to her eight-year old son, without more, was insufficient to demonstrate a gross, wanton, and willful disregard for human life. The trial court held that the sale of drugs from the apartment and the presence of a controlled substance in close proximity to the child constituted the willful act required by the statute. The Court of Appeals affirmed and Jones appealed to the Virginia Supreme Court.
Issue: 1) What conduct demonstrates “willfulness”? 2) May a party be convicted of criminal conduct for a failure to act when there is a duty to act?
Holding and Rule: 1) Willfulness imports conduct that is knowing or intentional, rather than accidental, and done without justifiable excuse, without ground for believing the conduct is lawful, or with a bad purpose. 2) Yes. A party may be convicted of criminal conduct for a failure to act when there is a duty to act.
A ‘reckless disregard’ can be shown through conduct that subjects a child to a substantial risk of serious injury or death. We consider a substantial risk of injury and a probability of injury to be interchangeable terms for purposes of our analysis.
The term “willful” contemplates an intentional, purposeful act or omission in the care of a child by one responsible for such child’s care. The code does not require that a child actually suffer serious injury as a result of a defendant’s acts or omissions. The illegal drugs were within arm’s reach of an unattended young child and the dangers inherent in such a situation could be inferred by the fact finder as a matter of common knowledge.
Criminal negligence is conduct that is gross, wanton and culpable demonstrating a reckless disregard for human life. Criminal negligence is judged under an objective standard and may be found to exist where the offender either knew or should have known the probable consequences of her acts.
In this case Jones knew or should have known that placing fourteen capsules of heroin and a plate with cocaine residue in the same room as her unattended eight-year old son created a substantial risk of serious injury. Defendant also knew or should have known that her continuous and illegal drug activity at the apartment when her young child was present also created a substantial risk of serious injury from the dangers inherent in the illicit drug trade.
See People v. Thomas for a criminal law case brief in which the Colorado Supreme Court held that recklessness can be an intentional act and that attempted reckless manslaughter is a cognizable offense.