LAW: CASE OFFERS GUIDE FOR PARENTs
Punishment of teen deemed ‘reasonable’
ABUSE: Big Isle man's conviction reversed
STORY SUMMARY »
The state Supreme Court has weighed in again on the contentious issue of corporal punishment, siding last week with a Big Isle man who forcefully disciplined his girlfriend's teenage son.
The court last week unanimously reversed the misdemeanor abuse conviction of Alfred J. Roman, who kicked and slapped the 17-year-old after the teen did not help Roman prepare a Mother's Day meal for the boy's mom.
In a 30-page decision, Chief Justice Ronald Moon wrote that Roman's actions fell under the state law that permits parents to use force if it's not intended to cause serious injury and is appropriate for the age and size of the minor.
Lawyers involved in the case say the decision affirms that courts must review each case individually, but the ruling gives parents some guidance.
"It provides a guidepost in terms of what's OK and what's not," said Deputy Public Defender Henry Ting.
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In another decision on the contentious issue of how far a parent or guardian can go in disciplining kids, the Hawaii Supreme Court has reversed the abuse conviction of a Big Island man who kicked and slapped a 17-year-old boy after the teen failed to correctly grate cheese for tacos for a Mother's Day dinner.
The high court ruled last week that the discipline by Alfred J. Roman of Puna was "reasonably proportionate to the minor's misconduct." Chief Justice Ronald Moon wrote the 30-page opinion that reinforces the high court's decision last year that announced broad parameters to distinguish permissible parental discipline from abuse.
But the history of Roman's case and the length of the opinion reversing a misdemeanor conviction show there's still a lot of disagreement on the volatile issue.
A Big Island judge found Roman guilty of abusing a household member and sentenced him to two days in jail and two years' probation. The Hawaii Intermediate Court of Appeals split 2-1 in favor of upholding the conviction.
On Thursday, the high court unanimously overruled the lower courts.
Ronette Kawakami, head of the appeals unit of the state Public Defender's Office, which represented Roman, said given the circumstances of the case, the ruling was the "right decision."
"If you don't have control of your child, and the child cannot listen to authority in a family home, imagine what could happen outside the home," she said.
Henry Ting, the deputy public defender who handled the appeal, said the decision is consistent with prior high court rulings.
"It provides a guidepost in terms of what's OK and what's not," he said.
Mary Ann Hollocker, the Big Island deputy prosecutor who defended the conviction on appeal, declined to comment until she had a chance to review the opinion.
Moon also wrote the 3-2 majority opinion last year that reversed the abuse conviction of a mother who hit her 14-year-old daughter with a backpack, plastic hanger, a small brush and the plastic handle of a tool. The girl had been doing poorly in school and refused to tell the mother why she failed to attend tutoring.
In that case, Moon said the decision wasn't an endorsement of corporal punishment, a controversial topic, but said the Legislature has approved its use as a "parental tool."
He said there's no rule that covers all cases, and each must be evaluated individually.
In Thursday's decision, Moon wrote that Roman's conduct fell under the state's parental discipline law, and provided a detailed explanation of the allegations. According to his opinion:
The boy, whose name was not disclosed, lived with his mother and her boyfriend, Roman, at Roman's Hawaiian Acres home in Puna. Roman treated the minor as his "stepson."
On Mother's Day in 2002, Roman wanted to prepare a Mexican meal for his girlfriend and wanted the teenager to help make the dinner.
During the trial, the boy testified Roman told him he was grating the cheese incorrectly and told him to "lay or sit down."
When Roman returned from an errand, he yelled at the teenager about the cheese, kicked him twice in the buttocks and whacked him twice in the face, the boy testified. The boy said Roman drank a case of beer that night.
Roman testified he had asked the boy to grate cheese and shred lettuce, but when he returned, he found that neither had been done. The boy was laying down facing the television wearing a blaring Walkman headset, Roman said.
Roman said when he asked about the cheese, the boy just stared at him. Roman said he kicked the boy's butt. The boy got up with a clenched fist, Roman said.
"I had no idea what was on his mind," Roman testified.
Roman said he told the boy to hit him if the boy wanted to. When the teenager stepped forward, Roman slapped him, Roman testified.
Roman denied that he told the boy he wasn't grating the cheese correctly and told him to sit down. He also said he drank a six-pack of beer.
Family Court Judge George Yuda ruled that the parental discipline law doesn't apply because the case does not involve "misconduct" by the boy.
Yuda said Roman, "a fairly large person," reacted angrily to the youth's "defiance," but that the situation did not involve "misconduct" by the youth. The judge said "it was just inaction on the part of the (minor)."
The intermediate court held that the parental discipline law does apply, but that the error was "harmless" because the prosecution provided enough evidence to negate that defense.
Moon's opinion disagreed.
He said it "defies logic" to characterize the boy as "defiant," yet portray him as simply not cooperating.
"In our view, not cooperating with a defiant attitude and demeanor is 'misbehavior,' i.e., misconduct, on the part of the minor as such behavior shows disrespect for parental authority," Moon said.
"It seems natural that Roman, as one of the persons responsible for the general care and supervision of minor, would view minor's attitude and demeanor as misconduct that warranted discipline."
Moon said Roman's discipline caused a little soreness to the boy's lower back and redness and a small lump on his cheek for an unknown period of time.
But the chief justice said there was no evidence of bruising or swelling, the youth did not require medical attention, and there was no showing that the boy's physical, emotional or psychological well-being was harmed.
Moon said the court does not believe "Roman's discipline was excessive in light of the minor's age, his misconduct and the comparatively mild physical force used by Roman."
Kawakami said the ruling helps the public understanding of the issue.
"I think it's instructive in the sense that it tells parents that defiant behavior on that level is misbehavior, which is subject to force discipline," she said.
Associate Justices Steve Levinson and James Duffy Jr. joined in the opinion. Associate Justices Paula Nakayama and Simeon Acoba said they agreed only with the result.
State law permits parents to use force to discipline their kids. Last year, the Hawaii Supreme Court elaborated on the law.
A parent or guardian is justified in using force if:
» "The force is employed with due regard for the age and size of the minor and is reasonably related to the purpose of safeguarding or promoting the welfare of the minor, including the prevention or punishment of the minor's misconduct," and
» "The force used is not designed to cause or known to create a risk of causing substantial bodily injury, disfigurement, extreme pain or mental distress or neurological damage."
Hawaii Supreme Court
In State v. Matavale last year, the high court announced the judge or jury must consider the child's age, stature and injuries. There is no "bright line rule" between reasonable permissible discipline and abuse for all cases, the court said. "Rather, the permissible degree of force will vary according to the child's physique and age, the misconduct of the child, the nature of the discipline, and all the surrounding circumstances."
Sources: Hawaii Revised Statutes, court rulings
DISCIPLINE OR ABUSE?
The state law and Hawaii appeals court rulings suggest that hitting an infant would constitute abuse, while spanking a teenager for misbehavior would be permissible. But many cases fall between the extremes. A snapshot of previous court rulings:
» A mother hit her 14-year-old daughter with a backpack, a plastic hanger, a small brush and a tool's plastic handle after the girl did poorly in school and hung out with her friends instead of attending tutoring. The girl suffered bruises on her left forearm. RULING: DISCIPLINE.
» A boyfriend of the mother of a 14-year-old girl hit the teen on both sides of her face, knocked her to the ground, threw her on a bed, pulled off her pants and underwear and hit her buttocks, and hit her with a plastic baseball bat until it broke. The girl felt dizzy for about an hour and suffered bruises on her buttocks. The girl had falsified a school report of her grades and attendance. RULING: ABUSE.
» A father kicked his 14-year-old daughter in the shin, slapped her face five to 10 times, stomped on her face and pulled her ears. She suffered bruises and cuts. The girl had run away with a boyfriend on the day she was supposed to undergo a pregnancy test. She was beaten after she didn't respond when confronted about her relationship with the boyfriend. RULING: ABUSE.
» A father hit his 17-year-old daughter above the knees with a belt and cut her waist-long hair. The daughter suffered bruises for a week. He spanked her after he found the girl's friends at the home after he warned her not to have them over. RULING: DISCIPLINE.
» A father slapped his daughter in the face, repeatedly punched her shoulders and slapped her again. The hitting occurred after the girl used profanity during a confrontation. She suffered bruises and a scratch. RULING: DISCIPLINE.