Florida Supreme Court Finds Parents May Be Convicted for Kidnapping Own Children – Davila v. State

October 26, 2011 by David S. Seltzer

As a south Florida criminal defense lawyer, I was interested to read a Florida Supreme Court case that presented an interesting legal question: May parents be convicted of kidnapping their own children? Davila v. State was not a custody kidnapping case, but rather a case of child abuse with an imprisonment component. Davila was accused of false imprisonment, kidnapping, aggravated child abuse and more in his treatment of his minor son R.D., then eleven years old. Among other things, he was accused of locking R.D. in storage rooms and bathrooms for several weeks at a time for offenses ranging from lying to not washing dishes well. The Florida High Court ruled that parents may be convicted of kidnapping their own children under some circumstances.

R.D. came to live in Florida from Nicaragua in February of 2000; it was unclear whether the rest of the family came at the same time. At Davila’s trial, R.D. testified that not long after his arrival, his parents hit him several times for lying and misbehavior, and locked him in a storage room for three weeks. R.D. testified that in May, he was locked in a bathroom for three weeks, and again in July for one week. On one of those occasions, he said, it was at the request of his mother, who was not satisfied with his dishwashing. Davila allegedly bound R.D.’s hands and feet with rope, tied handkerchiefs over his eyes and mouth and put a bucket over his head, then forced to lie in the bathtub. When R.D. escaped from the rope or left the bathtub, he said, his father hit and kicked him with enough force to break tile. The abuse ended in July when R.D. escaped to a neighbor through a bathroom window. Davila disputed the tying, the duration of the lockups and the reasons for the punishment, but he was nonetheless convicted at trial and sentenced to life in prison. The Third District Court of Appeal ruled that a parent may kidnap his own child, but noted that this conflicted with a Second District ruling, Muniz v. State.

The Florida Supreme Court ultimately preferred the outcome in Davila, ruling that a parent may indeed be convicted of kidnapping, under the right circumstances. Under the plain language of the statute, it said, nothing prevents a parent or legal guardian from being charged; the statute requires only that the accused confine or abduct another person with intent to (in relevant part) terrorize him or her. Another subsection specifies that kidnap of a child under age 13 is against his or her will if it’s against the will of the parents or guardians. The court found that this section provides only a way for prosecutors to prove the will of young children; it is not the exclusive method. It found that if the Legislature intended to exempt parents from the kidnapping statute, it would have made this express. Judge Pariente concurred, mainly to address a dissent by Judge Canady. The dissent argued that Davila’s argument could not be found unreasonable, since the absence of a parent or guardian’s consent could be read as necessary rather than optional. Pariente said this could lead to an absurd conclusion, protecting teens 13 and older more thoroughly than younger children.

I do not approve of the parental behavior described in this opinion. But as a Miami-Dade criminal defense attorney, I would prefer a clear statement from the Legislature about whether the court was correct in its ruling. Kidnapping statutes are most often written with abduction by strangers in mind. Thus, the authors of the statute were likely not thinking about this issue when they wrote it, and the courts may have genuine difficulty divining legislative intent. It’s worth keeping in mind that while kidnapping is the most serious of Davila’s convictions, he would not walk free without it; that life sentence runs concurrently with a 30-year sentence for aggravated child abuse. As a Fort Lauderdale criminal defense lawyer, I am always cautious about heaping on new penalties unless they truly fit the crime.

If you’re accused of any serious crime in south Florida and you’d like to discuss your case and your legal options, don’t wait to call Seltzer Law, P.A. We answer the phone 24 hours a day and seven days a week, so you can get help even when arrests and other problems happen after hours. For a free consultation, call us today at 1-888-THE-DEFENSE (1-888-843-3333) or send us a message online.

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