“After unsuccessful recovery of the property, this case, as with any other, was forwarded to the court for prosecution.”
— Detective Lyle Gensler
Grand Prairie Police Department
“A child does something wrong, you teach them what’s right.”
– Ronald Jackson
The fact pattern is a familiar one in juvenile courts — a student enters a gym locker room, an empty classroom, or an athletic facility and goes through other students’ belongings, removing small electronics like cellphones or iPods. The student is almost always charged and, given the cost of those devices, the charges can easily end up being felonies.
But what if the person taking the phone isn’t another student doing it in stealth, but a parent doing it in the open? Surely, no one would quibble with a parent who removes access to a phone, tablet or mp3 player from a child who has misused the device or used it to get into mischief, right? Under any normal circumstances, no, but a story circulated in the news this week from Texas that did not have normal circumstances.
The news report, broadcast across the United States and even picked up across the pond by the BBC, was attention getting because it was one of those “man bites dog” stories. Only, in this case it was that a parent was being charged criminally for taking their tween daughter’s cellphone away.
Before we get to the unusual specifics of the Texas case, some discussion about the law in Ohio is appropriate. Generally, parents are given broad latitude over the manner in which they raise their children, including their method of discipline. Parents are generally left to freely make decisions about religious upbringing, education, medical care, house rules and more. There are limitations, of course, and parents are bound by law to provide the necessities of life, to ensure their children attend school and to provide appropriate supervision. They are prohibited from physical and emotional abuse of their children.
Ohio law makes it illegal for anyone to take property without the consent of its owner (theft), access someone’s computer or phone without their consent (unlawful use of a computer or telecommunications device), or maintain property that they know, or should know, has been stolen (receiving stolen property). The seriousness of the offenses depends on the type and value of the property involved.
Stories about the Texas case were frequently presented as clickbait — giving a headline to get you to click on the story online by highlighting only the fact that a father was charged criminally for taking a cellphone away from his pre-teen daughter. A closer look at the facts reveals, however, that this was a most unusual case in which many people behaved badly. The phone in question had been purchased by the child, with her own money, and with the permission of her mother, and was taken away by her father during a period of his visitation with the child. From all of the published information about the case, it did not appear that the decision was made in consultation with the child’s mother or even communicated to her.
The child’s mother immediately called the police. The police went to the father’s home and he refused to give the phone back to them. The prosecutor filed a theft charge and offered a plea deal if the father would give the phone back, but he again refused. As a result, the prosecutor filed a more serious theft charge and, although they had known the father’s location for months, requested an arrest warrant on that charge and had the father arrested at his home. At trial the judge found that the state of Texas had failed to present enough evidence to satisfy the basic elements of the offense and instructed the jury that they therefore had to return a verdict of not guilty. There’s an old adage around courthouses that “bad facts make bad law.” Here, bad facts made more bad facts.
Ohio law encourages parents to be involved in their children’s lives, vigilant about their children’s use of technology and to take steps to keep their kids safe. Monitoring their use of cell phones and the Internet, particularly as children are using devices at younger and younger ages, is an important consideration for any parent whose young children have access to the Internet or have a phone of their own.
David Hejmanowski is judge of the Probate/Juvenile Division of the Delaware County Common Pleas Court.