Nevada law aims to prevent kids left in cars

Highly publicized cases in which Las Vegas Valley children were left alone in vehicles in recent years, including a spate of deaths and injuries, prompted campaigns and a change in the law aimed at reducing the numbers.

The efforts might be paying off because there hadn’t been any reported cases of children dying as a result of being left in vehicles in the valley this year through Aug. 1, authorities said. Since 2001 at least seven children died after being left alone in vehicles in the valley during hot weather.

The number of cases of children left unattended in vehicles being forwarded from the Las Vegas police department to the Clark County district attorney also appears to be on track to be lower this year. Lisa Teele, supervisor of the Metropolitan Police Department’s abuse and neglect unit, said Las Vegas police have sent 37 cases of children being left unattended in vehicles to the Clark County district attorney so far this year. The total for 2006 was 76, Teele said.

The district attorney’s office decides what charges to file in those cases, if any.

The Legislature passed in 2005 a law that prohibits leaving any child 7 or younger in a vehicle without the supervision of a person who is at least 12 years of age. The punishment is up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. But the new law also allows judges to waive the penalties if the offender completes a parenting course.

There were several cases in summer 2005 that highlighted the issue, including a 17-month-old girl who was taken to a hospital after being left in a hot car for 90 minutes. The law was effective Oct. 1, 2005.

The new law only prohibits “knowingly and intentionally” leaving a child in a car.

The question of whether to prosecute someone who forgets a child is in a car has been contentious. District Attorney David Roger has not filed any charges in some of the most highly publicized cases because he was convinced the parent or guardian had not intentionally left the child in the car. Under Nevada law, Roger said, charges could not be filed in those cases.

In June 2003, David Fish left his 7-month-old son Hayden strapped in a car seat in the back of his van while he was teaching at Centennial High School. Fish said he was so exhausted from working a second job that he mistakenly believed he dropped Hayden off with a day care provider that morning. Hayden was left in the hot van for about 8 hours and died.

Roger also did not seek to charge Tiofilo Rodriguez with any crime after he left his 18-month-old daughter inside a hot car in 2005. The child remained in critical condition for several days after the incident but survived, authorities said.

Authorities also didn’t pursue charges against two Child Haven employees and a former employee after they left a 4-year-old girl inside a van for 40 minutes on a 102 degree day in July 2006. The girl was taken to a local hospital but wasn’t seriously injured.

The same month that David Fish accidentally killed his son and was not charged, Won Chong left his sleeping 2-year-old inside a car with the doors unlocked and the car running while he went into a Starbucks store. He told police that his son hadn’t slept the night before and he didn’t want to wake him. The child was fine, but Las Vegas police arrested Chong on a gross misdemeanor charge of felony child endangerment and Roger pursued the case. A justice of the peace later placed Chong on six months’ probation and ordered him to attend parenting classes and pay a $500 fine.

In August 2004, 26-year-old Christina Sarpy left her 8-month-old daughter in her vehicle so she could play video poker in a gas station at Decatur Boulevard and Washington Avenue, authorities said. Sarpy’s car, which she had left running, was stolen with the infant inside but recovered a short time later. The infant wasn’t injured.

Sarpy’s case is one of the many that underscore the argument that there are myriad dangers that a child can face when left alone in a vehicle, advocates for children have said.

Teele, the Las Vegas police abuse and neglect supervisor, said, “We just need to be mindful that it only takes a moment for something to occur. It’s just not worth the risk of a child’s life.”

That’s the message that public awareness campaigns in recent years have tried to reinforce with public service announcements, bumper stickers and billboards. Last year, the effort was ramped up to even include a mobile billboard stating “Heat Kills Children Inside Cars” in English and Spanish. The message was driven along some of the valley’s busiest streets.

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