Virginia’s Court of Appeals has overturned the conviction of a mother found guilty of assault and battery for disciplining her 12-year-old twins with a belt, after the panel said the trial judge overstepped her authority in suggesting she should have chosen a different punishment.
“Virginia, like every other state, permits parents to discipline their children with corporal
punishment,” wrote the three-judge panel in an opinion published Tuesday. “This ‘parental privilege’ excuses what would otherwise be battery in the ordinary course.”
To fall within the “parental privilege” justification, “discipline must be reasonable and not excessive,” according to the opinion.
Tina Dione Woodson was convicted in Hanover County of assault and battery after disciplining her 12-year-old twins with a belt. While each child had a minor bruise or mark afterward, neither was seriously injured.
While the Appeals Court had considered cases in which a child’s injuries were severe, this was the first time the panel considered whether the combination of other facts was enough for criminal liability to result.
The children were disciplined for using a cellphone outside the hours established by Woodson and her husband. A mutual friend had texted the twins.
According to the opinion, Woodson asked her son “to get a belt from her closet and told the twins to lay on the bed. She then hit them with the non-buckle end of the belt.”
Later that day, the son told a school resource officer he didn’t feel safe going home. When the daughter was asked by the resource officer, she expressed similar fear.
“The investigator testified that she saw bruises and marks consistent with a belt strap on daughter’s back and thighs when she spoke to daughter that day,” wrote the appeals panel.
Woodson testified, and denied using corporal punishment that day, but argued “the evidence established a permissible spanking and not excessive discipline.”
Judge Jan Brodie found Woodson guilty, saying the testimony of the son and daughter was “very credible.”
The judge also observed that “[t]his was over a texting violation. So the question is what could have been done by a parent and what should have been done and what shouldn’t have been done.” The judge stated that “instead of taking the phone and restricting their privileges the mother had them go get a belt.”
By the time of sentencing, the twins were living at their grandmother’s home and the Department of Social Services was providing services to the family, according to the opinion.
Woodson was sentenced to six months in jail on each count and ordered to spend 15 days in jail for each count, with the remaining time suspended.
While intentional touching qualifies as battery unless the person doing the touching has some legal justification or excuse, the presence of an accepted justification or excuse transforms what would otherwise be a crime into a permissible act, the opinion said.
Woodson argued her convictions for assault and battery should be reversed because her actions constituted reasonable corporal punishment, falling within parental privilege.
The Appeals Court said: “A parent has the privilege to discipline his or her child ‘within the bounds of moderation and reason.'”
According to the court, “The privilege protects diverse parenting values and practices” while also limiting the “significant costs” on a family that can come from government intervention.
In this way, the privilege generally serves the well-being of children—reflecting a trade-off between protecting children from the harm a parent may inflict and the harm that comes from unnecessary state interference. Criminal proceedings may lead to incarceration or invasive community supervision, and civil intervention initiated by the child welfare system may lead to removal of the child from the home. In this way, deference to parents provides a particularly important shield for low-income families and families of color who disproportionately experience state intervention.
The court considered the severity of injuries and risk to the children.
“Significant physical harm is best understood as involving injuries that are evidenced by something more than mere transient pain or minor temporary marks,” the court wrote. And, the punishment was not administered in a fit of anger, since corporal punishment “cannot be used as a cloak for
the exercise of malevolence.”
In its conclusions, the Court of Appeals ruled the trial judge characterized what occurred as “a mere texting violation,” and suggested Woodson “should have made a different parenting decision,” by taking away the phone, or restricting phone privileges.
“Parenting is an inordinately difficult task, and a criminal prosecution cannot rest on a debatable parenting decision without other evidence that the conduct was excessive,” wrote the appeals court. “Disagreement with Woodson’s decision to use corporal punishment, combined with evidence of only transient marks from the soft end of a belt, falls short of what a reasonable factfinder could conclude is excessive.”
The court said the evidence created only a suspicion or probability of guilt, and fell short of the legal standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt.” The convictions were dismissed.
“My client and I were very pleased with today’s opinion from the Court of Appeals,” said Woodson’s attorney, Dennis McLoughlin, Jr. “We feel that it was a just result.”