Commonwealth v. Rosa: The Appeals Court Elaborates the Massachusetts Law on the Parental Privilege to Use Reasonable Force in Disciplining a Child
by David Deakin
In Commonwealth v. Rosa, 94 Mass. App. Ct. 458 (2018), further app. rev. denied, 481 Mass. 1104 (Jan. 24, 2019), a case about the parental privilege to use corporal punishment, the Massachusetts Appeals Court grappled with the extent to which a fact finder should consider a defendant’s approach to parenting. The Appeals Court unanimously upheld the conviction of a father who kicked his five-year-old daughter in the chest hard enough to knock her down and cause her to cry. The Court, however, was divided about the basis for the holding that the Commonwealth had overcome the defense. As each of the three justices on the panel authored an opinion, the criminal bar should expect continuing litigation not only about the scope of the privilege but also about the type and quantum of evidence necessary for the prosecution to overcome the defense.
The Supreme Judicial Court established in Commonwealth v. Dorvil, 472 Mass. 1, 12 (2015) that a parent can use reasonable force in disciplining a child. The SJC explained that “no criminal liability will attach to a parent’s use of force against his or her child as long as ‘(1) the force used against the minor child 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.’” Rosa, 94 Mass. App. Ct. at 461 (parentheses in original), quoting Dorvil, 472 Mass. at 12. Because the parental privilege described above is an affirmative defense, once it is raised by the defendant, the prosecution bears the burden of disproving at least one of the requirements of the defense beyond a reasonable doubt. See Dorvil, 472 Mass. at 13. Each requirement is a question of fact. See id.
After a bench trial, the defendant in Rosa was convicted of assault and battery by means of a dangerous weapon (shod foot) for kicking his five-year-old daughter in her chest, knocking her to the ground, and causing both her and her two-year-old brother to cry. The defendant, who had brought his children with him to a drug store, became angry when his daughter ran and hid from him in the store. The defendant yelled and cursed at the girl. After a few minutes, the defendant went into the line to check out of the store. As he did, his daughter approached him and “grabbed his legs.” He “shoved” her away. The scene repeated itself, and the defendant spoke angrily to his daughter. When she approached him a third time, the defendant kicked her in the chest. As a result, she fell to the ground and cried briefly. In response to a question from a responding police officer about why he had kicked his daughter, the defendant replied, “I don’t raise pussies.” At trial, the defendant testified, claiming that he had “nudged,” rather than kicked, his daughter. The defendant first maintained that he had been concerned that his daughter would be kidnapped and thus used “reverse psychology,” pushing her away so she would stay near him. At another point in his testimony, however, he acknowledged that, by the time he kicked her, he was no longer concerned about kidnapping, and he did not want her close to him. Finally, he claimed his comment that “I don’t raise pussies” was meant to convey that he did not want to raise his children to be victims of bullies.
Justice Wendlandt authored the Court’s opinion affirming the conviction. Justices Englander and Rubin each wrote a concurring opinion. Justice Englander’s concurrence primarily emphasized his dissatisfaction with the second prong of the Dorvil standard. Justice Rubin wrote to express his view that kicking a child could never constitute reasonable force in disciplining a child.
Writing for the Court, Justice Wendlandt explained that “[p]arenting is essential to the reason underlying the privilege, and that aspect of the privilege is embodied in prong two [force used must be “reasonably related to . . . safeguarding and promoting the welfare of the minor”].” Rosa, 94 Mass. App. Ct. at 463. In determining whether the force used by the defendant was reasonable (under both the first and second prongs of the standard), therefore, “the trier of fact should take into account a variety of factors, including ‘the child’s age, the physical and mental condition of the child, and the nature of the child’s offense.” Id. at 461. The Court seemed to conclude unanimously that evidence of a defendant’s “subjective” “emotional state” cannot, by itself, satisfy the Commonwealth’s burden of disproving the defense. Id. at 462 n.2. In his concurrence, however, Justice Englander faulted the prosecution for focusing “unduly on what the defendant said to his child, rather than what he did.” Id. at 470 (Englander, J., concurring) (emphasis in original). Left for another case to resolve is the extent to which the prosecution can rely on the defendant’s subjective emotional state. Justices Wendlandt and Rubin – and possibly also Justice Englander – agreed that the prosecution can introduce evidence “that the defendant’s supposedly legitimate parenting purpose is false . . . .” Id., 94 Mass. App. Ct. at 463. Justices Wendlandt and Rubin viewed such evidence as relevant to disproving reasonableness under both the first and second prongs of the defense. It seems that Justice Englander, who would abandon the second prong entirely, see below, would nonetheless agree that the falsity of an asserted parenting purpose is relevant to reasonableness under the first prong, although this is less clear.
Justice Englander concurred because he agreed that the Commonwealth met its burden to disprove the first prong of the defense, the reasonableness of the force used. He noted, however, that, in his view, “the evidence of unreasonable force here was thin.” Id. at 468. The defendant’s abuse in this case, Justice Englander concluded, was more serious than the “spank” that was held in Dorvil, 472 Mass. at 3, to be justified by the parental privilege, and less serious than “the striking of a child in the face with a belt . . . [leaving] a mark” that was held to be outside the privilege’s scope in Commonwealth v. Dobson, 92 Mass. App. Ct. 355, 357-359 (2017). He thus concurred that the Commonwealth had satisfied its burden of disproving the reasonableness of the force under the first prong, albeit in a close case.
Justice Englander wrote separately also because of his concern that the second prong of the defense “can be understood as an invitation to pass judgment on how a parent has chosen to parent.” Rosa, 94 Mass. App. Ct. at 469 (Englander, J., concurring). Thus, Justice Englander envisioned a “troubl[ing]” scenario in which “a parent will have shown that the force used was reasonable under prong one, but nevertheless is convicted of assault because (in the fact finder’s judgment) the parent’s reasonable force was not reasonably related to disciplining the child.” Id. (parentheses in original). Justice Englander would omit the second prong from the defense to prevent courts from “becom[ing] involved . . . in evaluating the parent’s judgment about how to discipline their child.” Id. at 470. Ultimately, Justice Englander concluded that the reasonableness requirement in the first prong fully captures the requirement that the discipline not be abusive. Encouraging finders of fact to focus on the reasonableness of parental discipline, rather than on the force used to implement it, Justice Englander concluded, creates “the risk . . . that less articulate parents will have more difficulty justifying their actions,” id. at 470 n. 3, and thus be convicted in cases in which more sophisticated parents might be acquitted (or not charged at all).
Justice Rubin also concurred with Justice Wendlandt’s opinion for the Court. He agreed with the Court’s opinion that the Commonwealth had satisfied its burden of proof as to all three prongs. As to the third prong, however, he would have gone even further than the Court. He wrote separately to note that, in his view, kicking a child can never be justified by the parental privilege “because kicking a child always ‘creates a substantial risk of . . . physical harm . . . , gross degradation or severe mental distress.’” Id. at 466 (first ellipses in original; second ellipses added), quoting Dorvil, 472 Mass. at 12.
Although the requirements of the parental privilege are now settled, their limits are anything but. Not only is the case law still in an early stage of development, see Rosa at 468 n.2 (“[o]ur case law is not yet very developed as to what force can qualify as reasonable . . . .”), but also there is still disagreement about whether and/or to what extent the defendant’s subjective intent and purpose in disciplining the child is relevant to the fact finder’s assessment of the reasonableness of the force used. In future cases, therefore, defense counsel will likely rely on language from Justice Englander’s concurrence and, indeed, from footnote 2 of the Court’s opinion, to argue that the prosecution should be prohibited from introducing evidence of the defendant’s emotional state and/or intent or, at least, limited in its ability to do so. Prosecutors will respond that even Justice Englander’s concurrence leaves room for introduction of evidence of the defendant’s animus toward the child and that, at a minimum, the sincerity of the defendant’s stated reason for disciplining the child is always relevant in applying the defense’s second prong.
David Deakin is an assistant attorney general and deputy chief of the Criminal Bureau. Before that, he was a prosecutor in the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office, where he was chief of the Family Protection & Sexual Assault Bureau. This article represents the opinions and legal conclusions of its author and not necessarily those of the Office of the Attorney General. Opinions of the Attorney General are formal documents rendered pursuant to specific statutory authority.