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The National Trial Lawyers
Greater Lowell Bar Association

Parental Discipline; Alibi

It has long been accepted that a parent has the right to discipline a child, which includes using corporal punishment. For the first time in June of 2016, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court officially sanctioned the practice of parents using physical force to punish their children. While acknowledging the government’s interest in preventing the physical abuse of kids, the Court concluded that prohibiting corporal punishment would unnecessarily interfere with parental rights.

Assault and battery in Massachusetts is defined as an unconsented touching. Because children obviously do not consent to being beaten by their parents, a spanking constitutes an assault and battery. However, the parental privilege is an affirmative defense, which means in certain circumstances, a parent has the legal right to beat his or her child. The Court pointed out that although not permitted by a specific law, the corporal punishment of children was recognized at common law (which essentially means it’s been sanctioned by courts for a really long time). Further, the United States Supreme Court has written that the 14th Amendment to the Constitution protects parents’ and guardians’ liberty to direct the education and upbringing of their children, which arguably includes the right to physically discipline them.

The Supreme Judicial Court ultimately concluded a parent or guardian in Massachusetts cannot be punished for administering corporal punishment to his or her child if:

  • The amount of force used against the child is reasonable;

  • The force is intended to punish the child for misbehavior or is intended to promote or safeguard the welfare of the child; and

  • The force does not cause physical harm (other than fleeting pain or minor marks), severe mental distress, or gross degradation.

“Reasonableness” will be determined on a case-by-case basis by judges and juries. While the SJC has now given its blessing to corporal punishment, parents who choose to spank their children ought to exercise extreme caution in ensuring the level of force they use is not excessive.

An unrelated affirmative defense is an alibi. An alibi defense is appropriate when a defendant is charged with a crime, but was in some other location when the crime was being committed. At trial, the defendant will generally call witnesses who were with him at the time crime was being committed. The defendant is obligated to identify his alibi witnesses to the prosecutor in advance of the trial in addition to providing a description of the defendant’s location at the time of the crime. The prosecutor is then required to identify any Commonwealth witnesses who will testify the defendant was, in fact, at the scene of the crime.

If the jury believes the defendant’s alibi witnesses, the defendant cannot be convicted of the crime, and for that reason an alibi defense is incredibly powerful. In most cases, the defendant’s alibi witnesses will be family members or friends, and the prosecutor will accuse them of providing a false alibi to protect the defendant. Ideally, the defendant can establish an airtight alibi without calling witnesses at all. If the defendant is captured on surveillance video far away from the crime scene, such evidence is ordinarily sufficient to convince the jury to return a verdict of not guilty.

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