Adrian Peterson Indictment: Legal Parental Discipline or Criminal Act?

Minnesota Vikings star running back Adrian Peterson was recently indicted by a Montgomery County, Texas grand jury on charges of Injury to a Child arising out of his use of a switch to spank or, in Peterson’s words, to “whoop” his four-year-old son.

The indictment came after law enforcement was advised by a doctor that the child had received visible cuts and bruises to his back, buttocks, legs, hands and scrotum after the incident.

Since his indictment, Petersen expressed “how sorry I feel about the hurt I have brought to my child and said that he “caused an injury that I never intended or thought would happen.” His lawyer said that Peterson employed the same parenting techniques that Peterson had “experienced as a child growing up in east Texas.”

Texas Law Allows Corporal Punishment by Parents if “Reasonable”

Peterson’s indictment raises the controversial subject of how much discretion parents have or should have when it comes to physically disciplining their children. Texas law gives parents, stepparents, grandparents and legal guardians significant leeway in the use of corporal punishment to discipline their children.

Section 9.61 of the Texas Penal Code provides that “the use of force, but not deadly force [by a parent or stepparent, etc.], against a child younger than 18 years is justified… when and to the degree the actor reasonably believes the force is necessary to discipline the child or to safeguard or promote his welfare.”

In conjunction with the foregoing section of the Penal Code, Section 261.001 of the Texas Family Code specifically excludes from the definition of child abuse physical injury that results in substantial harm to a child if caused by “an accident or reasonable discipline by a parent, guardian, or managing or possessory conservator that does not expose the child to a substantial risk of harm.”

If Parental Discipline is “Unreasonable” and Creates “Substantial Risk of Harm,” It Can Be a Felony

If the discipline is “unreasonable” and “exposes the child to a substantial risk of harm,” it can therefore be the basis of felony charges like that now faced by Peterson. Specifically, Peterson was indicted under Texas Penal Codes Section 22.04 which makes it an offense to “intentionally, knowingly, recklessly, or with criminal negligence, by act or intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly by omission, cause to a child [14 years of age or younger]:

  • serious bodily injury;
  • serious mental deficiency, impairment, or injury; or
  • bodily injury.

State of Mind Determines Seriousness of Offense

The states of mind that determine the seriousness of the offense and the corresponding consequences are defined in Texas Penal Code Section 6.03:

  • Intentionally – An individual acts intentionally if they commit some act and it is in their desire or conscious objective to engage in the conduct, or to cause the result of the conduct.
  • Knowingly – An individual acts knowingly, or with knowledge, if they commit some act and they are aware their conduct is reasonably certain to cause the result of the conduct.
  • Recklessly – An individual acts recklessly if they commit some act and they are aware of their conduct or the result of their conduct, but consciously disregard the possibility the result will occur.
  • Criminal Negligence – An individual acts with criminal negligence if they ought to be aware of a substantial and unjustifiable risk that the circumstances exist or the result will occur.

“Reckless” injury to a child, or an injury that results from criminal negligence, is a state jail felony that could result in a jail sentence from 180 days up to two years. If the act is found to have been done “intentionally” or “knowingly,” it is a third degree felony with a potential prison sentence of up to 10 years.

The outcome of Peterson’s case remains to be seen, and opinions as to the wisdom or appropriateness of corporal punishment will continue to differ, but the line between legal parental discipline and a felony can be a fine one for parents and guardians to walk; and ultimately may only be resolved by a jury as too many factors are open to interpretation.

This article has been prepared for informational purposes only and does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal advice. The information is not provided in the course of an attorney-client relationship and is not intended to substitute for legal advice from an attorney licensed in your jurisdiction.