ORLANDO – Memories are all she has left of her son, Jace Leslie, that is why Makia Wallace is fighting so hard to keep his memory alive.
“Can you imagine my son sitting in a car crying? Every day I think of it,” Wallace told News 6. “As a parent you should understand. We prepare for them to come into the world. We do not prepare for them to leave.”
Jace was 20 months old when he was left inside a car last September by his caretaker, a woman hired to drop Jace off at daycare when both of his parents had to work.
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That day, the caretaker did not drop Jace off, she drove straight to work at a nearby school.
Jace sat alone in her vehicle for more than seven hours while temperatures soared to 91 degrees. His body was found only after the caretaker drove to the daycare to pick him up at the end of the day, realizing she had never dropped him off in the first place.
Deputies charged the caretaker with aggravated manslaughter, but News 6 isn’t naming the caretaker, because shortly after her arrest, charges were dropped.
“She was going to be held accountable for leaving my son in a car. What happened? What is different?” Wallace said. “You have a baby in the backseat of the car. What [other] evidence do you need?”
In court filings, prosecutors under then-State Attorney Aramis Ayala argued the caretaker was distracted.
“Listening to music and talking on the phone”, but they believed leaving Jace in the car was not intentional. It was an accident.
“They made a determination: they could not get an aggravated manslaughter charge to stick,” News 6 legal analyst Steven Kramer said.
Kramer said in order for an aggravated manslaughter charge to stick, prosecutors have to be able to prove culpable negligence.
“Going into a nail salon to have your nails done and intentionally leaving your child in a car would be more in line with culpable negligence,” Kramer said, “Versus accidentally leaving your child in the car.”
That’s exactly what prosecutors argued in court documents when they agreed to drop the charges.
However, even if Ayala’s team felt they could not prove aggravated manslaughter, Kramer said they could have charged the caretaker with something else: leaving a child in a car unattended.
“This statute is pretty cut and dry,” Kramer said. “If you are a parent or a legal guardian and you leave a child in a car for longer than 15 minutes, and they are under the age of 6 years old, you have committed a crime.”
This is how Wallace feels. She is now trying to get new State Attorney Monique Worrell, who took office at the beginning of the year, to reopen the case.
“We have to be consistent when it comes to situations like this or you are going to have kids constantly left inside a vehicle,” Wallace said.
News 6 reached out to Worrell to see if she plans to reopen the case.
Worrell, through her spokesperson, declined numerous interview requests but sent a statement saying: “The solemn reality is that not every tragedy is a criminal case...The evidence strongly suggests instead, that this was an accident...For these reasons we have determined that we do not have a legal basis to charge Ms. Wallace with Jace’s death.”
News 6 followed up to ask if Worrell’s office would instead charge the caretaker with a lesser crime, like leaving a child unattended in a car.
In a lengthy reply through a spokesperson, Worrell wrote that prosecutors have to be able to prove intent in order to charge a guardian for leaving a child in a car, unattended.
News 6 reviewed the statute for leaving a child unattended in a car. Neither intent nor culpable negligence are listed as specific requirements to prove the crime, which is upgraded to a third-degree felony if it results in gross bodily disfigurement.
Worrell implied the current statute may need to be rewritten to help hold guardians more seriously accountable.
(Read the full statement from State Attorney Monique Worrell below.)
Despite Worrell’s position, Wallace says she will continue to fight for justice for Jace.
“My son was a human being. They prosecute people for leaving animals in the car. My son was a human being.”
Worrell said she will not reopen the case, but one local lawmaker is trying to do more to hold certain caretakers accountable.
State Sen. Linda Stewart has filed a bill that would require daycare vans to have alarms that would alert the driver if someone or something was left in the back seat.
The bill needs to pass one more committee before moving for a vote on the Senate floor.
State Rep. Ben Diamond filed a House companion bill last week.
NATIONWIDE ‘HOT CAR’ DEATHS
News 6 found nationwide, outcomes of hot-car deaths are inconsistent.
According to KidsandCars.org, in the last two decades, at least 532 children were killed after a guardian unknowingly left them in the car. Of those cases, 41 percent of guardians were never charged. Another 11 percent were charged but found not guilty.
STATEMENT FROM STATE ATTORNEY MONIQUE WORRELL
This case involves the tragic death of Jace Lucas Leslie, who was unfortunately left inside a parked car for approximately 7.5 hours on September 11, 2020.
While this is beyond tragic, there is no evidence that Ms. Wallace was using drugs or alcohol at the time, or engaged in any nefarious activity—she was simply driving to work at the elementary school she worked at as a teacher. She was listening to music and talking on the phone—neither of which alone, or taken together, would be considered to be culpably negligent for a person responsible for a toddler to do. The fact that she was paid by the child’s father to bring the child to daycare for the parents some of the time does not make this culpable negligence. This was not a course of repeated conduct and lapses on Ms. Wallace’s part.
Florida Statute 316.6135 (2014) states “A parent, legal guardian, or other person responsible for a child younger than 6 years of age may not leave the child unattended or unsupervised in a motor vehicle...” If this statute is to be read as requiring no mens rea, criminal intent, then any such person is guilty of a crime—even if they had no idea a child was placed in his or her car without his or her knowledge. Such a reading would also criminalize simple negligence, as is what the facts show this case to involve.
Florida Statute 316.6135 became effective on June 8, 1999. Originally this conduct was punished as a noncriminal infraction with a fine. The statute’s language, at that time, used the word “shall” not. In 2007, Senate Bill 2 proposed amending the statute. The pertinent amendments were that it would now be a misdemeanor to engage in the prohibited conduct (sometimes), and a third degree felony if the child suffered great bodily harm, permanent disability, or permanent disfigurement. By sometimes, the undersigned would point out that the statute still only punished this conduct as a noncriminal traffic infraction if the child was left “(f)or any period of time if the motor of the vehicle is running or the health of the child is in danger.” Therefore, if the child’s health was in danger, this was to be punished as a noncriminal infraction; if the child was in the car for longer than 15 minutes, it was to be punished as a misdemeanor. If the child suffered great bodily harm, permanent disability, or permanent disfigurement, without “the health of the child [being in] danger” then the conduct was to be punished as a felony. The statute could certainly be drafted more carefully. The current version of the statute still states the conduct is only a noncriminal traffic infraction “[f]or any period of time if the motor vehicle is running, the health of the child is in danger, or the child appears to be in distress.” Therefore, the statute currently punishes leaving a child whose health is in no danger and is not in distress for 15 minutes more harshly than a child whose health is in danger or appears to be in distress for any period of time.
The 2007 legislative history, to the extent one relies on legislative history, offers no guidance as to whether or not the legislature intended for this conduct to be a strict liability offense—other than that it did make the decision to change “shall” to “may.” To infer that these words mean the exact same thing would render the statutory amendment moot, which statutory construction does not allow one to do. Shall not is imperative—may not implies a choice being made.
The current version of the statute states: “(1) A parent, legal guardian, or other person responsible for a child younger than 6 years of age may not leave the child unattended or unsupervised in a motor vehicle...” In the 22 years the statute has been in effect, there is only one case in Westlaw underneath the statute. Hicks v. State, 262 So. 3d 846 (Fla. 1st DCA 2018). Unfortunately, the case provides no guidance as to whether or not there is a mens rea requirement imputed to the statute. To the extent that the conduct prohibited by Florida Statute 316.6135 is punishable as a misdemeanor or felony, there must be mens rea read into the statute, making it only a criminal offense if the offender knowingly chooses to leave a child unattended in the car. Otherwise, not only are people who simply forget (negligent) potentially guilty of a crime, people who have no knowledge at all that there is a child in the car would also be guilty of a crime. For instance, in this case, if Ms. Wallace lent her car to another teacher to run an errand and that person had no knowledge that Jace had been left inside the car, and then parked the car when he or she was done borrowing it—under a strict liability reading of the statute, that person would also be subject to being charged with a third degree felony.
Although Ms. Wallace clearly owed Jace a duty of care, breached that duty, and caused Jace’s death—this is the definition of simple negligence, a tort—not a crime.