Saturday, July 28, 2007

Exploring Legal Responsibility

On Wednesday morning, Danny Takemoto, 46, drove to his office at a medical equipment company in Concord, California. Seven hours later, his wife called to ask why he had not dropped off their 11-month-old son, Ian, at the daycare center that morning. Mr. Takemoto ran outside and found his son strapped to his seat in the back of the van. He was dead, apparently from hyperthermia. Mr. Takemoto was arrested and later released pending thorough investigation of the incident.

On Friday afternoon, two TV news helicopters were covering an incident in Phoenix, Arizona in which police were pursuing a man who had stolen a work truck and later another truck. Suddenly, the helicopters collided and fell to the ground in fiery heaps leaving the four occupants dead. Christopher J. Jones, 23, was arrested on numerous counts including vehicle theft and aggravated assault on a police officer, and the Phoenix police chief suggested that he might also be charged with the deaths of the helicopter crews.

What do both of these stories have in common? To me, they raise the complex issue of legal responsibility. Is Danny Takemoto legally responsible and should he be legally punished for the death of his young son? Is Christopher Jones legally responsible and should he be punished for the deaths of the four men in the two helicopters?

I do not believe that Danny Takemoto should be charged with the death of his son. There is no indication that he killed his son on purpose or habitually engaged in conduct that imperiled his son's life. By all accounts, he was a hard-working and very loving and devoted father who had changed his routine that day and simply forgot that he had left his son in the backseat of the van while he went in to work. What sense does it make to legally punish a man, who is no doubt already in emotional hell, for doing something he did not know he had done?

Many would argue that that he should have remembered his son and that he deserves to be punished for the fact that he did not. But I do not understand this reasoning. If he did not remember, one can talk all day about how he SHOULD have remembered, but there is every reason to believe that he DID forget his son in the van even though he loved him dearly, and that is that.

Others would argue that throwing this man in prison will make other parents less likely to forgetfully leave their children in sweltering vehicles until they die. But it seems to me that the deterrent effect of imprisoning Mr Takemoto is likely to be negligible. Parents throughout the country have already heard or read about this tragic story and are likely to be no more deterred from forgetting their children by learning of Mr. Takemoto's imprisonment than by simply knowing that Ian Takemoto died a terrible and tragic death.

Yet, if we stop holding people legally responsible for failing to do what they should do, because they either forget to do it or do not know that they are supposed to do it, does this mean that police should not ticket parents for forgetting to buckle their children into their safety seats, or cite people for breaking laws of which they are ignorant? Where and how do we draw the line between cases like Mr. Takemoto's and cases such as these?

As for the case of Christopher Jones, it seems evident to me, as it probably does to most people, that he should not be held responsible for the deaths of the helicopter crews. Yes, it is true that had he not stolen those vehicles and led police on a chase through the streets of Phoenix, those two news helicpoters would not have collided, and four men would be alive who are now dead.

One could argue that Jones should not be held responsible because the helicopter crews were engaged in a COMMERCIAL activity aimed at bringing higher ratings and thus higher profits to their news organizations; they were not working in a LAW ENFORCEMENT or PUBLIC SAFETY capacity. But does this mean that if deaths of POLICE OFFICERS had resulted from the crash of a police helicopter or police car involved in the pursuit, Mr. Jones should be held responsible? And what if a police helicopter or car involved in the pursuit had killed an inncoent civilian? Should Mr. Jones be held responsible for THAT death?

These are questions for which I do not have ready answers. Intuitively, I feel that neither Mr. Takemoto nor Mr. Jones should be held legally responsible for the deaths that DID occur, but I am not certain about the hypothetical cases I mentioned or how one rationally draws the line between the actual cases and my hypothetical ones.

What do you think?


Tom said...

I fully buy your reasoning. No crime was committed in either tragic situation.

Anonymous said...

I do not agree with what you wrote about Mr. Takemoto. I find it hard to compare the two cases also.

Mr. Takemoto forgot his son and that's an ok excuse for you? What if I forgot to strap my child in his carseat and I am in a car accident and he is killed? Am I not liable? If your children said they forgot that they aren't allowed to drink, is that ok?

Forgetting is absolutely no excuse. He was negligent and that negligence cost his son his precious life. He definitely SHOULD be held accountable.

Nagarjuna said...

What further punishment do you think should be inflicted on this man and his family than the hellish torment they're going through already, and what do you think it would accomplish?

Ava said...

I understand what you are saying about the family being tormented by this tragic event. But as I said, negligence isn't an excuse.

I am not sure what a suitable punishment would be, but I would think that some sort of legal punishment should be enforced. After all, that was child endangerment. The same thing happened to another couple, someone saw their child in the car and saved the child minutes away from the same fate little Ian had. She went to jail for that and her child didn't die.

Just because someone is traumatized by the death, doesn't excuse what they did. If a drunk driver kills someone and they are traumatized, would that be enough punishment?

I'm sorry, I just don't agree with you that he shouldn't be held liable.

Nagarjuna said...

Thank you, Ava, for replying to my inquiry. I realize that others have received jail or prison sentences for doing what Mr. Takemoto did and that mothers have received the harshest sentences for it, presumably on the grounds that they bear more responsibility for forgetting their child than a father does. And I understand your sense that justice is not served by letting Mr. Takemoto or anyone else go free for something like this.

On the other hand, I empathize with Mr. Takemoto, because, even though I don't have any children, I have ADD (attention deficit disorder), and I know how terribly forgetful I am as part of that condition. I know that I could love my child dearly and SILL do what Mr. Takemoto did. And I don't see justice in punishing someone and his whole family more than they've already been punished by Ian's death by itself for the fact that this man's mind failed him.

It wouldn't bring Ian back to life, and throwing Mr. Takemoto in jail for a prolonged time would only deprive his wife and two daughters of the income they need to keep a roof over their heads, clothes on their backs, and food in their stomachs. Do you think they should all suffer more than they surely do already?

If so, to what end? That is, what do you think it would accomplish?

Nagarjuna said...

Ava, as a follow-up to my previous comment, I think you raise a very good question about whether someone who kills another while driving DUI should be excused if he's traumatized over the death he caused by his negligence.

However, I think that such a case displays a more conscious and culpable negligence than we see in Mr. Takemoto's case. The person who drives drunk and kills someone makes a conscious decision to start drinking knowing that he could end up driving dangerously impaired afterward. And chances are, he has and knows he has driven drunk many times and that only luck prevented him from killing or injuring anyone.

On the other hand, it's exceedingly possible that Mr. Takemoto had never done anything like this before. Furthermore, there's no evidence I know of that he deliberately left or made a conscious decision to forget that he left his son in the van.

So, again, although one could say that there was negligence in both cases, the DUI driver who kills someone seems to me (unless someone spiked his drink with alcohol or other drug when he thought he was drinking something safe) to be far more negligent and culpable than Mr. Takemoto was. It seems to me like virtually an apples and oranges comparison.

Yet, having said this, your comment raises thorny issues for a guy like me who doesn't believe in free will. That is, if everything we do is inevitable, to what degree can anyone justly be "held responsible" and punished for anything, including forgetfully leaving a baby in a sweltering vehicle on the one hand or driving DUI on the other?

I confess that I haven't worked all of that out yet. When I do, I should start preparing to receive my Nobel Prize. :-)

Ava said...

I do agree with what you are saying, that Mr. Takemoto didn't purposely leave his child in the car. I don't think, or should I say, I HOPE that nobody would do such a horrible thing.

I also agree that comparing a drunk driver to what Mr. Takemoto did is like comparing apples to oranges. I only brought that up as a food for thought moment. I don't believe people should be excused from crime due to ignorance or negligence.

I don't agree with your argument that putting Mr. Takemoto in jail will be a burden to his wife and their two daughters, so we shouldn't do that. There are plenty of women who raise children alone, including myself. While it's not easy, you adapt and provide for your children. To excuse his negligence for the mere fact it may cause a hardship on his family is not a valid reason. That's a tough pill for other single parents to swallow.

I am not trying to lynch this man, please don't misunderstand my argument. I am quite sure this man is totally distraught and will have to live with this for the rest of his life. But, the fact still remains the same, he neglected his child, whether purposely or mistakenly, the end result is still the same.

I will again repeat what I had said before, Negligence is no excuse. We cannot pardon anyone for their negligence, however tragic the accident.

While I do not know what a suitable punishment would be, I do think he should be held accountable by law. Perhaps some time in jail and some community service? I honestly don't know what would be appropriate, but I do know that dismissing this without any punishment would be a huge disgrace to this child and to the next child who may be forgotten in his or her parents vehicle.

Nagarjuna said...

So, the inference I draw from what you're saying, Ava, is that this man should be punished for doing something there is every reason to believe that he couldn't help but do at the time, and if his family suffers even more than they surely do already on account of it, it's all in the name of "justice."

I guess you and I have reached an impasse here. I see no justice in what you propose, especially if it involves any kind of incarceration that imposes further hardship on a family that desperately needs precisely the opposite.

But I do appreciate you expressing your opinion. You articulately speak for what is probably the majority perspective in a case such as this. And if I had children of my own, I might be more inclined to share it, even though this would be irrelevant to determining its correctness.

This raises another question. Is there a "correct" solution to a moral problem like this, and, if there is, what makes it so, and how do we know what it is?