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Cops: Don't leave kids in cold cars

DULUTH -- A bustling shopping season can serve as a reminder to parents that, when it comes to leaving children unattended near shopping centers, there's no such thing as an overabundance of caution.

Arrests based on children left alone in vehicles aren't relegated to sultry summer weather, as evidenced, police say, by a hurried mother recently jailed for leaving her sleeping child alone in her vehicle for a few minutes on a chilly day.

The arrest is an example of myriad situations police encounter on a daily basis that could lead to damning charges against parents who inadvertently commit crimes, police say.

It was a decision, police determined, that put the child at risk.

A bystander at a Publix grocery on Pleasant Hill Road called police on a recent afternoon to report a child sleeping unattended in the backseat of a Hyundai Elantra. The temperature hovered somewhere in the 40s, according to a police report.

A Gwinnett police officer arrived to find all four doors of the vehicle locked, but no guardian in sight. A few moments later, the 3-year-old girl's mother returned, claiming she'd been inside less that 15 minutes to retrieve some medication.

"She stated that she (had not wanted) to wake up the child from her sleep and thought that she would only be inside the store for a minute," the officer wrote.

The 35-year-old Duluth woman called her husband to retrieve the child, and police arrested her on charges of reckless conduct.

She posted $1,300 bond on the misdemeanor charges and was released from jail about five hours later. She's scheduled to appear in court sometime in the next eight months, she said during a recent phone interview.

"I thought it was only in summertime when it's really hot out that you can't do that," she said. "They were right ... it was too long."

Numerous factors will influence an officer's decision-making process in situations involving unattended children, said Gwinnett police spokesman Officer Brian Kelly.

Any degree of negligence on the part of parents could warrant criminal charges and a call to the Division of Family and Children Services.

"Certainly, if there's any indication that the child was in any danger -- whether that be physical, emotional or mental -- due to the situation ... then criminal charges and DFCS referrals would be appropriate," Kelly said.

Action taken by police is ultimately determined by "the totality of the circumstances involved," he said.

Kelly said he's personally seen instances on patrol of innocent mix-ups between parents. But ignorance isn't always a viable excuse.

"One parent placed a sleeping child in the car without communicating to the other parent," said Kelly, recalling a specific incident. "We run into so many different scenarios on a daily basis it would be impossible for me to state universally" what leads to criminal charges, he said.