South-Western Legal Studies in Business

Duty to Report Suspected Child Abuse Not Unconstitutionally Vague
Description Missouri high court held that a nurse could be prosecuted for violating the state law that requires health care professionals to report suspected child abuse. The statutory requirement was not unconstitutional for vagueness as the requirement of the law could be understood by a person of ordinary intelligence.
Topic Criminal Law
Key Words Child Abuse; Duty to Report; Constitutionality; Vagueness
C A S E   S U M M A R Y
Facts Two-year old Dominic James was taken to the hospital when he was unconscious and not breathing. The medics who left him at the hospital told Brown, the nurse on duty, that they believed abuse was involved. A week later, Dominic was released from the hospital but returned four days later when he died from "abusive head trauma." Brown did not report the suspected abuse to Family Services as required by law. She was charged with failure to report the abuse. She contended that the statute was unconstitutionally vague and could not be enforced. The trial court agreed and dismissed the case. The state appealed.
Decision

Reversed and remanded. The test for determining whether a law is void for vagueness is whether its language conveys to a person of ordinary intelligence a sufficiently definite warning as to the proscribed conduct when measured by common understanding and practices. The statute criminalizing a health professional's failure to report child abuse upon "reasonable cause to suspect" abuse was not unconstitutionally vague. The phrase "reasonable cause to suspect" has been in use for more than a century and is understandable by ordinary persons.

Citation State v. Brown, 140 S.W.3d 51 (Sup. Ct., Mo., 2004)

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