Children Left In Locked Cars: Similar Cases, Different Outcomes
by Heather Graf
MURFREESBORO, Tenn. - It's happened yet again: a mid-state child left alone in a locked car. This time, Murfreesboro Police found the toddler in the backseat, and got him out safely, but the boy's grandfather was only issued a misdemeanor citation.
60-year-old James Reehl told police his three-year-old grandson refused to get out of the car during their last errand of the day.
A police officer initially spotted Reehl's car parked illegally in a handicapped spot of the Kroger store on Lascassas Highway. The officer was in the process of writing a ticket when he saw the little boy in the backseat.
"When the officer approached the car, he convinced the young child to open the door and removed him from the vehicle," said Kyle Evans with the Murfreesboro Police Department.
Evans said another officer then went inside the store and located Reehl.
Reehl was given a misdemeanor citation, police said, because the incident happened at about 7:35 p.m. They said the heat of the day had passed, and it was only about 76 degrees at the time.
"Well in this case, the charge is leaving a child under the age of seven inside a motor vehicle unoccupied," said Evans. "Reckless endangerment isn't appropriate in this case because the temperature was not at a dangerous level."
The executive director of Tennessee Children's Advocacy Centers said authorities must consider a number of factors when deciding whether to file charges in cases like these.
"What we find in all child abuse related cases is that you have to look at the circumstances of the individual case," said Bonnie Beneke. "Every one is on a case by case basis."
Earlier this month in Smyrna, police charged 25-year-old Samantha Harper with aggravated child abuse and neglect.
They said temperatures hit the mid-90s on that day, when Harper allegedly left her two young kids in a hot car for hours. Both children died from heat exhaustion.
Beneke points out that in that particular case, authorities were made aware of a previous report of child neglect involving Samantha Harper. That history, and deplorable living conditions found inside her home, likely played a part in the decision to charge her.
"I think the deplorable situation that family was living in, if indeed the photographs we've seen are true, and that's where the children were living - that didn't happen overnight," said Beneke.
Then last week, Donelson mother Stephanie Gray allegedly forgot to drop her five-month-old off at daycare, and instead left him in the family mini-van all day long.
Metro Police said Gray had to be taken to the hospital herself, because she was so distraught when she learned of her child's death. She has not yet been charged with a crime.
"I think it would be very difficult for particularly the case in Donelson, for a jury to hear that, hear what happened," said Beneke. "And if that mother were asked to testify, I think the jury would have a great deal of sympathy for her."
NewsChannel 5 spoke to Reehl on Wednesday about why he left his grandson in his locked car in Murfreesboro.
Reehl told us it was a lapse in good judgement and a mistake he'll never make again. He said the ticket he was given also serves as scary reminder about the dangers of leaving kids in cars.
Beneke said the charges filed in cases like these also have a lot to do with the jurisdiction a family lives in and how aggressive prosecutors may be.