Anytime you are dealing with the death of a young child, it is a difficult topic. Given this sensitivity, it is incredibly important that we prepare law enforcement officers and prosecutors for how to investigate and prosecute hot car deaths. During this course, Joshua Clark and Hilary Weinberg from the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office highlight leading practices when working these types of tragic cases.
According to noheatstroke.org, there have been 25 hot car deaths so far in 2017 (as of June 2017). Given the relatively low volume of this type of incident, many officers are not familiar with how to most effectively investigate this type of crime. Here are some of the investigative best practices:
- ASAP after arriving on the scene, measure and record the temperature of the car and the specific area where the child was located.
- Photograph everything including the exterior of the car, interior of the car (i.e. locks, glove box, seats, under the seats, the floor), the sky and any surrounding trees or structures that may provide shade
- Identify and interview witnesses including any that might be identified through receipts collected from the vehicle, neighbors who might have seen the car while in motion and child protective agency records to develop a detailed timeline of events on the day of the incident.
- Collect any evidence that would indicate that the child in the car was in distress. These might include sweaty clothes, torn out parts of the car, vomit, blood and any other injuries
- Document the weather conditions through historical weather data and personal observations at the scene of the incident
- Reconstruct the incident as soon as possible using the same car, location and weather conditions. Measure the interior temperature throughout this testing process
The prosecutor must compile the evidence collected during investigation and determine the appropriate charge (if any). As with any case, it is best to gather as much evidence and lock in statements from the caregiver before arrest. Assuming that the prosecutor determines there is sufficient evidence to move forward with the case, it is important to anticipate the potential defense strategy.
- Attack the Conditions: This strategy is most often used when the victim did not die and the attorney will seek to establish that the conditions were not dangerous.
- Culpability: This strategy relies on the difficulty jurors may have in believing any parent might hurt their child intentionally. The defense counsel will frame the incident as a tragic incident, and attempt to convince the jury that the prosecutor and law are unjust (e.g., jury nullification).
- Attack the Investigation: Given the low volume nature of hot car deaths, it is very possible that the initial investigation will be incomplete. Developing agency protocols for investigation is essential to negating this strategy