(1). This justification defense applies to both criminal and child welfare abuse allegations.
(2). It does not apply to “Serious Physical Injury” child abuse cases.
(3). What reasonable discipline is requires a totality of the circumstances inquiry, fact specific to each case and no one fact is per se autmatically child abuse. The jury ultimately makes the call and what is, or is not reasonable discipline (Praise the Jury Right Forever).
Utah allows for reasonable force when disciplining your child. Its called the reasonable discipline doctrine. Who makes the decision what reasonable force is or is not? The jury or judge does. How much force is to much force for reasonable discipline in Utah? Where is the reasonable discipline doctrine found?
All these topics are explored in this blog.
The reasonable discipline doctrine is a broad doctrine designed to encounter many different fact patterns of physical discipline. The doctrine allows the fact finder broad discretion in determining what reasonable discipline is and where child abuse begins.
The jury, or judge as the fact finder must make case-specific, circumstance-specific factual inquiries when determining what reasonable discipline is in Utah child welfare and Utah criminal child abuse cases.
In child abuse cases, the jury or judge as the judge of fact should examine the situation as a whole, and no one factor is per se dispositive for each determination.
The relationship between the need and the amount and type of punishment administered by a parent may be relevant when determining if reasonable discipline was used. Likewise, the child’s age and size may also be relevant in some situations, but these factors are not mandatory, nor are the present in every case.
The defense must present a shred of factual evidence that that the jury could possible find that you used reasonable discipline. Secondly, the child abuse allegations cannot involve “serious physical injury” as defined by the Utah Child Abuse statute. 76-5-109.
Utah Code 76-5-109 defines “Serious Physical Injury” to be:
“Serious physical injury” means any physical injury or set of injuries that:
(I) seriously impairs the child’s health;
(II) involves physical torture;
(III) causes serious emotional harm to the child; or
(IV) involves a substantial risk of death to the child.
(B) “Serious physical injury” includes:
(I) fracture of any bone or bones;
(II) intracranial bleeding, swelling or contusion of the brain, whether caused by blows, shaking, or causing the child’s head to impact with an object or surface;
(III) any burn, including burns inflicted by hot water, or those caused by placing a hot object upon the skin or body of the child;
(IV) any injury caused by use of a dangerous weapon;
(V) any combination of two or more physical injuries inflicted by the same person, either at the same time or on different occasions;
(VI) any damage to internal organs of the body;
(VII) any conduct toward a child that results in severe emotional harm, severe developmental delay or intellectual disability, or severe impairment of the child’s ability to function;
(VIII) any injury that creates a permanent disfigurement or protracted loss or impairment of the function of a bodily member, limb, or organ;
(IX) any impediment of the breathing or the circulation of blood by application of pressure to the neck, throat, or chest, or by the obstruction of the nose or mouth, that is likely to produce a loss of consciousness;
(X) any conduct that results in starvation or failure to thrive or malnutrition that jeopardizes the child’s life; or
(XI) unconsciousness caused by the unlawful infliction of a brain injury or unlawfully causing any deprivation of oxygen to the brain.
Once the defense asserts reasonable discipline, the government in criminal cases has the burden to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defense doesn’t apply. In a criminal case the burden of proof and persuasion never shifts to the defendant to prove anything. The government at all times bears the burden to prove their prosecution beyond a reasonable doubt.
Like most Utah criminal law doctrines, the reasonable discipline doctrine was a common law doctrine expressed in Utah case law. Utah’s statutory criminal code became effective on July 1, 1973 and expressly abolished all common law crimes, unless specifically cited in the Utah Criminal Code. See Utah Code 76-1-102 and 105. This author suspects that prior to the common law, the right and duty of disciplining your child was expressed in the natural law.
Now the reasonable discipline doctrine is specifically found in the following statutory schemes.
76-5-109 Child Abuse. Section 109 cites what Utah misdemeanor child abuse is. The defense of reasonable discipline is imbedded at (4)(C) and reads:
“(c) An actor is not guilty of an offense under this section for conduct that constitutes: (i) reasonable discipline or management of a child, including withholding privileges;”
76-5-109.2 Aggravated Child Abuse (Generally Not Available). When the facts rise to aggravated child abuse, generally the reasonable discipline doctrine is not available. It is expressly omitted from the new version of the aggravated child abuse statute and expressly omitted in Utah’s criminal justification statute.
76-2-401. Justification as defense — When allowed. Utah’s broadly applying justification statute details when you can claim the various principles of criminal justification to prove your innocence. Criminal justification just means legally approved conduct when using force that would normally be a crime.
The justification statute specifically excludes the reasonable discipline doctrine from any offense charged which involves causing serious bodily injury, serious physical injury or the death of child.
80-1-102. Juvenile Code definitions. Utah retitled the juvenile code into Title 80 on 09/01/2021. Previously Utah’s juvenile code was located in Title 78A.
The reasonable discipline doctrine is stated at 80-1-102 and states:
102(b) “Abuse” does not include: (i) reasonable discipline or management of a child, including withholding privileges;
. . . .
Notice the language “reasonable discipline or management of a child” is verbatim the same in the Utah Juvenile Code, the Utah Child Abuse statute.
Utah’s child abuse statute was reworked and re-titled on 05/04/2022. The new 2022 legislature split out child abandonment, aggravated child abuse and child abuse into separate statutes.
Remember, the jury or the judge when sitting without a jury decides what reasonable discipline is or is not. A persuasive jury lawyer can really make the difference in showing the jury your side of the story. Here are four recent cases illustrating what reasonable discipline meant to juries or judges sitting without a jury:
Bountiful City v. Baize, 487 P.3d 71 (Utah, 2021)
Procedural History: A Utah Supreme Court case were the defendant lost both times at the trial court and at the appellate court.
Issue: The Utah Court of Appeals and the Utah Supreme Court had to give guidance on what reasonable discipline is and what the rules are.
Facts: Father was spending weekend custodial time with his child. The child was throwing tantrums on of which was in a grocery store parking lot that lasted around an hour and prevented the father from being able to secure the child in his car seat. The child was physically hitting the grandmother and verbal abusing both father and grandmother. Eventually the father spanked the child leaving bruising on his behind in the shape or form of a finger/ hand. Mother called DCFS. We know what happened after that.
Court Holding and Reasoning: While there was bruising left on the child from the spanking this bruising in the shape of a finger or hand print did not rise to serious physical injury. Under the statute, for a reasonable discipline claim, anything less than serious bodily harm is neither per se reasonable nor per se unreasonable but instead requires an inquiry in the reasonability and non-seriousness of the injury.
The basic rule for determining if the discipline was not criminal and thus reasonable discipline required a totality of the circumstances to be considered. No one fact can end the inquiry, although that one fact can be very persuasive.
State In Interest of K.T., 424 P.3d 91 (Utah, 2017)
Procedural History: Another Utah Supreme Court case after traveling through the juvenile court. It was not a criminal chase.
Issue: Is hitting a child with a belt per se constitute abuse? No.
Facts: A mother and father are being prosecuted for hitting their children with a belt. The mother had used a rhinestone belt to discipline her children. The father also hit the children with a belt.
Holding: Hitting a child with an object is not per se unreasonable but merely evidence to prove harm to the child and abuse. There must be other evidentiary proof that the child was harmed in an unreasonable manner.
Reasoning: The Utah Supreme Court rejected any automatic rule that hitting a child with an object is always unreasonable child abuse.
State In Interest of K.D.N., 318 P.3d 768 (Utah App.,2013)
Procedural history: On first appeal to the Utah Court of Appeals—a child welfare case.
Issue: Do the four accounts of the mother disciplining her children allow for a reasonable discipline defense.
Facts: On four different occasions the mother hurt her children. The first time mother hit daughter hard enough to chip her tooth. The second time they were wrestling regarding an IPod and the mother and daughter bit each other. The third time the mother dragged the daughter downstairs to her room. The last time the mother barricaded the daughter in a basement room and through a hole in the door pulled the child’s hair causing her to hit the door and leaving a bald spot on the child.
Holding: In this case the mother’s actions crossed the line and did not constitute reasonable discipline.
State ex rel. J.R., 257 P.3d 1043 (Utah App.,2011)
Procedural History: In court of Appeals on appeal from a child welfare proceeding in the juvenile court.
Issue: Was the father’s actions against his daughter reasonable discipline?
Facts: Several witnesses testified regarding father’s course of conduct of slapping child, calling her, her mother, and sister’s vile names, accusing child of sexual activity, and threatening child with an exam to prove or disprove her virginity.
The juvenile judge found father’s conduct not to be reasonable discipline.
Are You Accused Of Criminal Child Abuse? Has Dcfs Conducted An Investigation And Made Child Abuse Findings Against You? Have You Received A Notice Of Agency Action Indicating Abuse And Your Listing On The Licensing Informaiton System And The Management Information System?