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Commonwealth v. Jean G. Dorvil

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Court/Judicial body:
Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court


25 June 2015

Instrument(s) cited:
US Constitution, 14th Amendment

Case summary

The defendant was convicted of assault and battery for kicking and spanking his three year old daughter. On appeal, he invoked a common law defence of ‘parental privilege’ and argued that the use of force to control and discipline his child was justified, excusing him from liability for conduct that otherwise would constitute a criminal offence.

Issue and resolution:
Corporal punishment of children. The Court clarified the scope of the common law parental privilege defence which may be relied on by parents to justify the use of corporal punishment on their children. It reversed the defendant’s conviction on the basis of insufficient evidence as the State had failed to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the defendant’s use of force was unreasonable or not reasonably related to a permissible parental purpose.

Court reasoning:
At the outset, the Court noted that it was mindful of the dual important interests involved in the case: the welfare of children requiring protection against abuse on the one hand, and on the other, the avoidance of unnecessary state interference in parental autonomy concerning child upbringing.

The Court noted that some states have codified the common law parental privilege in statute, while others have kept it as a common law doctrine, but in either case, all US jurisdictions allow parents to use at least moderate or reasonable physical force when they reasonably believe that such force is necessary to control their children. The due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution has been interpreted by the courts to protect the liberty of parents and guardians to direct the upbringing and education of children under their control. Indeed, the interest of parents in the care, custody, and control of their children is one of the oldest of the fundamental liberty interests recognised by the Supreme Court and the relationship of parent and child is constitutionally protected.

However, the Court held that this parental right is not absolute as the State has a compelling interest in protecting children from actual or potential harm. This interest is particularly powerful given the risk that the parental privilege defence may be used as a cover for instances of child abuse. Therefore, in the absence of legislation delineating the scope of the parental privilege defence, the courts must articulate a framework that strikes a balance between protecting children from excessive punishment, while at the same time permitting parents to use limited physical force in disciplining their children without incurring criminal sanction.

Accordingly, the Court held that a parent or guardian cannot be subjected to criminal liability for the use of force against a minor child under the care and supervision of the parent or guardian, provided that: (1) the force used is reasonable; (2) the force is reasonably related to the purpose of safeguarding or promoting the welfare of the minor, including the prevention or punishment of the minor’s misconduct; and (3) the force used neither causes, nor creates a substantial risk of causing, physical harm (beyond fleeting pain or minor, transient marks), gross degradation, or severe mental distress. According to the Court, by requiring that the force be reasonable and reasonably related to a legitimate purpose, the approach effectively balances respect for parental decisions with the State’s compelling interest in protecting children against abuse. By additionally specifying certain types of force that are unreasonable, the meaning of reasonable is clarified and provides guidance to courts and parents.

As with other affirmative defences, the State bears the burden of disproving at least one prong of the defence beyond a reasonable doubt. In the case at hand, the Court decided that the State had failed to provide sufficient evidence to disprove the defence so it reversed the conviction.

Link to full judgement:

This case summary is provided by the Child Rights International Network for educational and informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice.