It was big news when the Parkland Sheriff deputy who failed to act during the Parkland high school shooting was charged with a crime. While many people applauded the decision, many others considered it political grandstanding. More than anything else though, people wondered “can they really charge him for not doing anything?” And the answer to that is yes, after all, they already filed charges. The real question is: will he be convicted and that answer is a bit more complicated.
The Criminal Charges for A Parkland Sheriff Employee
Deputy Scot Peterson of the Parkland Sheriff Department has been charged with seven counts of child neglect and three counts of culpable negligence for failing to investigate the source of gunfire inside the Parkland school and retreating to take cover rather than going towards the source of the danger. Peterson, who was the only armed guard on the school’s campus, said he responded properly by calling the police and helping the school perform a full lockdown.
Peterson is also accused of perjuring himself during the investigation into his behavior during the shooting. He lied under oath about the number of bullets he heard fired after he arrived at the school. Video footage of the scene clearly shows how many shots he heard while on the scene.
In Florida, all cases of child neglect and negligence are felonies punishable by up to five years in prison, unlike in California, where a lawyer can negotiate plea bargains to downgrade felony charges to misdemeanors. Florida’s laws state that these charges can be punished by up to fifteen years imprisonment if the child suffered great bodily harm as a result (which would is the case here). Perjury charges in Florida are misdemeanors punishable by up to one year in prison if they occurred during an unofficial proceeding. Since Peterson faces eleven counts of neglect and negligence charges, plus the one charge of perjury, he could end up spending the rest of his life in prison if he was convicted of all charges.
The Parkland Sheriff Deputy’s Defense
Almost every lawyer will agree that Peterson has a pretty strong defense against the neglect and negligence charges. That’s because Florida’s child neglect and negligence charges are specifically applicable only to “caregivers,” which may include parents, adult household members or other persons responsible for the child’s welfare. While this could be stretched to include daycare providers or even teachers in some case, legal experts argue that stretching it all the way to include a sheriff’s deputy is going way too far. Even if they can do that, they still need to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Peterson is responsible for the student’s deaths, which is practically impossible.
Beyond that though, experts argue that convicting Peterson will set a dangerous precedent that could make it possible for police, sheriffs, even firefighters to be charged with neglecting to act in any given situation where people are harmed. They point out that police do not sign up to recklessly run into danger simply because it’s there, but to try to do what they can during dangerous situations.
Additionally, while no one wants officers and firefighters on the job that are too terrified to do their job, it’s impossible for someone to know how they will act in a life-threatening situation until they are in one. By illegalizing cowardice in certain professions, they will make it much more difficult to recruit qualified persons to work in these professions.
On the other hand, despite these facts, people are still highly emotional about the Parkland shooting and it’s possible a jury will convict Peterson solely to teach the former deputy of the Parkland Sheriff a lesson.
One Conviction is Fairly Certain
As for the perjury charge, this one is pretty clear cut and Peterson will almost certainly be found guilty of this crime given that there is video evidence proving that he was lying. But a one year stint in jail (or even one year of probation) is nothing compared to life imprisonment for child neglect and negligence.
If you have been accused of similar charges as Mr. Peterson or if you feel that you are only being charged for political purposes, Peter M. Liss can help. Please call (760) 643-4050 or (858) 486-3024 to schedule a free initial consultation.