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    Parental Privilege and Corporal Punishment or Battery, Unnecessary, and Excessive Discipline?

    In this case, Tina Dione Woodson v. Commonwealth of Virginia, where a mother was charged with battery for disciplining her 2 12-year-old twins with a belt, the issue is whether the actions were those of unnecessary and/or excessive discipline or parental privilege. The 2 children were preparing for school that morning when one child heard the other child's alarm go off on the phone. That child picked up the phone to turn off the alarm and in doing so, mother, who realized the children had violated the no phone before school rule, saw a text from a child's friend. Family rules were that there were to be no exchanges of texts from other children to or from the phones. Neither child would admit to the text, so mother had both children lay on the bed and used a belt to " spank" them at least 6 times each for a total of 12 lashes each with the belt.  

    At school, one child told school resource officers he did not feel safe going home and his twin agreed citing the incident from that morning as well as other incidents at the hands of the father on different occasions. 

    Was this battery or corporal discipline?

    The trial court sentenced the mother to serve six months in jail on each count of battery, with fifteen days of active time for each count and the remaining time suspended and the appeal ensued.

    On appeal, mother argued that her convictions for assault and battery should be reversed because her actions constituted reasonable corporal punishment, falling within this parental privilege.

    “When reviewing the sufficiency of the evidence to support a conviction, [this] Court will affirm the judgment unless the judgment is plainly wrong or without evidence to support it.” Bolden v. Commonwealth, 275 Va. 144, 148 (2008). This inquiry requires us to determine whether “any rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable
    doubt.” Wilson v. Commonwealth, 53 Va. App. 599, 605 (2009). The standard is not without teeth, however. We must reverse a conviction when the “evidence creates only a suspicion or probability of guilt.” Yarborough v. Commonwealth, 247 Va. 215, 218 (1994). This assignment of error also requires us to define the scope of the parental privilege to discipline, which involves both questions of law and fact. “We review questions of law, and mixed questions of law and fact, utilizing a de novo standard of review.” Muhammad v. Commonwealth, 269 Va. 451, 479(2005).

    Did this punishment serve the well-being of the 2 children?

    The court states: Because the privilege must serve the well-being of children, there are limits. “[S]tate interference with a parent’s right to raise his or her child must be for the purpose of protecting the child’s health or welfare.” Williams v. Williams, 24 Va. App. 778, 783 (1997), aff’d in part, modified in part, 256 Va. 19 (1998). The potential for abuse cannot be taken lightly. Thus, the privilege cannot cloak punishment that causes, or threatens, serious harm. For this reason, we do not allow a parent to physically discipline a child if the discipline is “excessive” or “immoderate.” Eberhardt, 74 Va. App. at 33. Such discipline inflicts, or creates a substantial risk of inflicting, significant harm.

    The Court continues,  

    "Starting at the beginning, our Supreme Court first set out factors that pertain to the reasonableness or excess of punishment in 1947:
    Where a question is raised as to whether punishment has been moderate or excessive, the fact is one for the jury to determine from the attending circumstances, considering the age, size and conduct of the child, the nature of his misconduct, the nature of the instrument used for punishment, and the kind of marks or wounds inflicted on the body of the child. Id. The emotional state of the parent is another factor. Harbaugh v. Commonwealth, 209 Va. 695, 698 (1969) (parental privilege to discipline “cannot be used as a cloak for the exercise of uncontrolled passion”). To date, these factors have only been applied in four published decisions. Each of these cases involved significant physical harm to a child that overshadowed any passing consideration of the other listed factors. And in each case, the Supreme Court and our Court upheld the conclusion that the parent’s significant physical harm to the child had crossed the line. In Carpenter, for example, the seven-year-old child’s legs “were cut and bruised badly,” her “arms were bruised,” “she had a gash across her forehead and a bad bruise on her cheek,” and her bottom was described as “a mass of stripes, some of which were open and bleeding, and some had scabs on them.” 186 Va. at 855. The Department of Social Services worker who examined her summed up her physical condition as “just a bleeding mass of bruises.” Id. at 856

    Were the 2 children in this current case a bleeding mass of bruises? No. However, the bruises and the fact that the child came forward indicated enough concern that they were taken seriously. Ultimately:

    "the court determined that [t]he evidence was that instead of taking the phone and restricting their privileges the mother had them go get a belt, the children were laid across a bed and they were hit with the belt. In this court’s opinion, that’s excessive force for the violation considering the size of the children, the mother, the circumstances. No one has argued that this case involved significant physical harm, and a reasonable factfinder could not conclude that the combination of other factors demonstrates that the discipline that morning placed the twins at risk of serious harm. While the court mentioned that Woodson used a belt, her use of the soft end of a belt was not so unusual, cruel, or degrading without the presence of significant injury or other evidence about the number or location of the strikes. Neither could Woodson’s size change this calculus since she was of average height and build. That both twins expressed fear of returning to their home is a matter of serious concern, but there was insufficient evidence here that this fear was linked to Woodson in particular, or that the fear reflected the reasonableness of the specific instance of corporal punishment Woodson had administered that morning and which was the basis for the battery charges.

    Instead, the primary factor the trial court relied on was the nature of the twins’ misconduct. The court characterized what occurred as a mere texting violation and suggested that Woodson should have made a different parenting decision—taking the phone away from
    them or restricting their phone privileges—instead of using corporal punishment. Parenting is an inordinately difficult task, and a criminal prosecution cannot rest on a debatable parenting decision without other evidence that the conduct was excessive. Disagreement with Woodson’s decision to use corporal punishment, combined with evidence of only transient marks from the
    soft end of a belt, falls short of what a reasonable factfinder could conclude is excessive. Applying our understanding of the scope of the parental privilege to use reasonable corporal punishment to these circumstances, we conclude that the evidence creates only a
    suspicion or probability of guilt and falls short of what a rational trier of fact could find excessive beyond a reasonable doubt. As a result, we reverse and dismiss".

    In conclusion, cases of abuse/ battery or parental privilege/corporal punishment are on the rise. If you have questions on the law in this regard, contact a family law attorney where you live. 


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