Adrian Peterson was criminally accused of child abuse when a Texas Grand Jury indicted him last week. Disturbing pictures were released that showed lacerations on his four-year old son’s legs. I suspect this story is gaining a lot of traction because the NFL is in the media a lot these days for a number of off-the-field incidents that have occurred in the past few months. In addition to the Ray Rice scandal that is getting a large amount of the attention, there’s also the Greg Hardy incidentand the Ray McDonald incident. As most of you probably know, Ray Rice was accused of knocking his fiancee out cold in a domestic violence incident in a casino. Meanwhile, Greg Hardy was convicted in June of beating and threatening to kill his girlfriend and Ray McDonald is under active investigation for beating his pregnant girlfriend. As a result of these incidents, the NFL is rightly being criticized for having a culture of violence against women. These incidents speak for themselves and many people are already discussing them to the point where I really don’t have much to add. Domestic violence is bad, people shouldn’t commit acts of violence against their partners, and the partners shouldn’t be in relationships with people who beat them. I really went out on a limb there, didn’t I? The Adrian Peterson story is a lot more nuanced.
When people heard that Adrian Peterson was arrested for beating his kid, they inevitably fell into one of two categories. Category One are people who were horrified that Adrian Peterson abuses his own children. Category Two are people who were horrified that you can now get arrested for using corporal punishment. According to an article written in fivethirtyeight.com, there appears to be a demographics trend regarding the use corporal punishment. Republicans tend to favor its use over Democrats, southerners tend to favor its use over northerners, African-Americans tend to favor its use over Caucasians, and born-again Christians love it. There appears to be a mild uproar by some that the world is going to hell in a hand basket because people can’t discipline their kids anymore. “In my day” nostalgists are having a field day to say the least. But what exactly is the law on this topic? In other words, can you still beat your kids?
Surprisingly for most, the law hasn’t changed at all. The question as to whether a parent can use corporal punishment is, was, and will probably always be: “it depends.” The way it typically works in any state, including New York, is it is generally illegal to intentionally cause a physical injury to someone else. For example, if person A punches person B in the face and causes person B to have a bloody nose, then Person A is guilty under New York law of Assault in the Third Degree. This is true unless person A is justified in causing the injuries to person B. The legal concept of justification usually incapsulates what people call self-defense. For example, if person A punched person B because person A was defending himself against person B’s attack, then he wouldn’t be guilty of Assault because a person is legally entitled to defend himself under certain circumstances (I have a blog post on this topic).
Most people know and understand the concept of justification in this context. But it is also the law of justification that allows a parent to intentionally cause physical injury to his child in certain circumstances. For example, New York Penal Code Article 35.10 states that: “A parent…may use physical force, but not deadly physical force, upon [a child] when and to the extent that he reasonably believes it necessary to maintain discipline or to promote the welfare of such [child].” Just about every state in America has always had a similar rule in effect. This is still the law today and it hasn’t changed. But if the law hasn’t changed, what has? The key words in this law are “reasonably believes.” In other words, the parent has to genuinely and honestly believe that he is only trying to discipline his kid and a neutral and reasonable person in the parent’s exact position would feel the same way about the situation. For example, if a parent spanks his kid for misbehaving, it’ll appear a lot more reasonable (and therefore justified) than if a parent pours scalding hot water on his kid for misbehaving. The words “reasonably believes” are the difference between good ole fashioned child-rearing and child abuse. The concept of what is and what is not reasonable will continue to evolve and it is certainly susceptible to demographics. With regard to Adrian Peterson, the prosecution is going to have to prove to an East Texas jury that the use of a switch was not reasonable in the situation in which it was used. I don’t know the facts of the case other than what has been reported, but the sense I get is they’re probably going to have a tough time winning.