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COA denies parental privilege defense, upholds father’s battery conviction

February 2, 2018

The defense of parental privilege did not apply to a man accused of battering his 14-year-old son because the evidence in the case could support a conclusion that the father’s actions were inspired by anger, the Indiana Court of Appeals ruled in a Friday opinion.

In William A. Hart v. State of Indiana, 20A03-1708-CR-1865, 14-year-old P.H. drove his father, William Hart’s, personal truck one day while Hart was on the road working as a truck driver. Law enforcement officers investigated the situation and brought P.H. home, and his mother, Melissa Woods, told Hart she had disciplined him.

Approximately one month later, when Hart was home, he began yelling at P.H. for having left an electronic cigarette at a friend’s house, and yelled at Woods for defending their son. P.H. responded by telling his father to shut up and leave him alone, prompting Hart to slap him three times on the face and head, then kick him on the ribs as he rolled on the floor.

Woods called 911, while P.H.2, the couple’s 6-year-old daughter, heard the yelling in her bedroom. Responding officers later testified that P.H.’s face was red and swollen and that he recoiled when they tried to touch his face or ribs.

After being mirandized, Hart told officers his son had “got a little smart,” gave him a “smug little look” and “pushed the wrong button,” but denied kicking him in the ribs. He also claimed that P.H. was known to steal cars and break into homes but had not been subject to police action.

P.H. was eventually placed in a medically induced coma, while his father was charged with Class D felony battery. Though P.H.’s coma affected his memory and ability to testify, Hart was convicted and sentenced to three years suspended to probation.

On appeal, Hart argued there was insufficient evidence he had battered P.H. in the presence of his daughter. The Indiana Court of Appeals, however, determined that though P.H.2 was in her room at the time of the incident, she was considered present under Indiana Code section 35-42-2-1(a)(2)(M). The little girl testified that she heard the argument in her home, Senior Judge John Sharpnack wrote Friday, while the 911 tapes recorded Woods instructing her daughter to return to her room.

Hart also argued the state failed to disprove his claim of parental privilege to justify his actions, but Sharpnack wrote that under the facts of the case, a jury could have reasonably concluded that Hart’s slapping and kicking of his son was not to discipline for past behavior –  such as taking his truck – but rather was an angry reaction to P.H.’s words and facial expressions.

“As Hart put it, P.H. had ‘pushed the wrong button,’” Sharpnack wrote. “They jury could conclude that Hart neither had a reasonable believe that force was necessary nor was the force used reasonable.”

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