Justification: Parental Discipline

courtmartialdefenselawyers11.00.09 2The law has clearly recognizes the right of a parent to discipline a minor child by means of moderate punishment.   See United States v. Scofield, 33 M.J. 857 (A.C.M.R. 1991). In United States v. Brown, 26 M.J. 148 (C.M.A. 1988), the Court concluded that the use of force by parents or guardians is justifiable if the force is used for the purpose of safeguarding or promoting the welfare of the minor, including the prevention or punishment of his misconduct; and the force is not designed to cause or known to create a substantial risk of causing death, serious bodily injury, disfigurement, extreme pain or mental distress or gross degradation. See also United States v. Proctor, 34 M.J. 549 (A.F.C.M.R. 1991), aff’d, 37 M.J. 330 (C.M.A. 1993).

An example of what constitutes, “reasonable” is given by the Court in United States v. Scofield, 33 M.J. 857 (A.C.M.R. 1991). The Court held that a parent who spanks a child with a leather belt using reasonable force and thereby unintentionally leaves welts or bruises nevertheless acts lawfully so long as the parent acted with a bona fide parental purpose. However, in United States v. Ward, 39 M.J. 1085 (A.C.M.R. 1994) , the Court made it clear that the right to discipline a child is not a license to abuse a child.

In United States v. Gowadia, 34 M.J. 714 (A.C.M.R. 1992), the Court found that tying a child’s hands and legs and placing a plastic bag over his head went beyond use of reasonable or moderate force allowed in parental discipline. 

In United States v. Gooden, 37 M.J. 1055 (N.M.C.M.R. 1993), the defendant who admitted striking his child out of frustration and as means of punishment, but who did not claim that he honestly believed that force used was not such as would cause extreme pain, disfigurement, or serious bodily injury was not entitled to instruction on parental discipline defense.

In the United States v. Rivera, 54 M.J. 489 (C.A.A.F 2001), evidence of one closed-fist punch, without evidence of actual physical harm, was legally sufficient to overcome the affirmative defense of parental discipline where the punch was hard enough to knock down the accused’s 13-year old son. See also United States v. Robertson, 36 M.J. 190 (C.M.A. 1992); United States v. Ziots, 36 M.J. 1007 (A.C.M.R. 1993).