New Jersey Supreme Court Makes Important Decision on Endangering the Welfare of a Child Charges
The New Jersey Supreme Court very recently ruled that in order to obtain a conviction for endangering the welfare of a child, prosecutors need not prove that the child sustained actual harm, but only that there was a substantial likelihood that harm could result from the parent’s or guardian’s actions.
In a 4-3 ruling, the majority said there was abundant support in case law to hold that a showing of actual harm is not mandatory to sustain a conviction under the statute. Justice Walter Timpone, writing for the majority in State v. Fuqua, said a trial judge was correct in denying Danyell Fuqua’s bid to dismiss the endangering charge based on the contention that no harm came to the six children that were under her care. “Relying on ample precedent the court held that the state need only prove, and did prove, that a child faced a ‘risk’ of harm sufficient to convict,” Justice Timpone said.
According to the decision, Fuqua was the girlfriend of a man, Tyrell Johnson, who was the target of a drug investigation by the Middlesex County Police in September of 2011. Law enforcement then executed a search warrant on a motel room that December. In the motel room, officers found marijuana, heroin, pills and other drug paraphernalia, and also present were six children, ages 1 to 13, the ruling said.
As a result, both Johnson and Fuqua were charged with endangering and multiple drug offenses. Johnson eventually pleaded guilty, but Fuqua opted to go to trial. After the judge denied her motion to dismiss the endangerment charges, she was convicted and sentenced to six years in prison, according to the court.
The Appellate Division rejected the defense arguments that there had to be a showing of actual harm. The Supreme Court also agreed, holding that only a showing of risk of harm was needed. “Not one published opinion holds otherwise,” Timpone said. “We find no reason to disturb the decades-old sound precedent predicated on the plain language of the statute.” Justice Timpone said there was a commonsense reason why actual harm need not be a prerequisite for a conviction. “Children are naturally curious and inquisitive,” Timpone said. “Drugs hauntingly surrounded children’s toys and clothing. The easy access to cocaine, heroin and marijuana, and the attraction of brightly colored pills, all created a potentially lethal trap for the children that could have sprung at any moment.”
Justice Rabner, in his dissent, said the Legislature did not make its intent clear when it enacted the statute, and that the courts should therefore give it a narrow interpretation. Justice Albin said the majority’s ruling gives prosecutors license to base a criminal charge on what is a civil law definition of endangerment. Justice Jaynee LaVecchia joined in the dissent.
What is Endangering the Welfare of a Child?
The statute at issue in that case is codified in our Criminal Code at N.J.S.A. 2C:24-4(a)(2) and reads as follows:
Any person having a legal duty for the care of a child or who has assumed responsibility for the care of a child who causes the child harm that would make the child an abused or neglected child as defined in R.S.9:6-1, R.S.9:6-3, and section 1 of P.L.1974, c.119 (C.9:6-8.21) is guilty of a crime of the second degree. Any other person who engages in conduct or who causes harm as described in this paragraph to a child is guilty of a crime of the third degree.
In sum, R.S. 9:6-1, 9:6-3, and 9:6-8.21 provides that a child is abused or neglected if the parent or guardian (1) inflicts or allows to be inflicted upon such child physical injury by other than accidental means which causes or creates a substantial risk of death, or serious or protracted disfigurement, or protracted impairment of physical or emotional health or protracted loss or impairment of the function of any bodily organ; (2) creates or allows to be created a substantial or ongoing risk of physical injury to such child by other than accidental means which would be likely to cause death or serious or protracted disfigurement, or protracted loss or impairment of the function of any bodily organ; (3) commits or allows to be committed an act of sexual abuse against the child; (4) or a child whose physical, mental, or emotional condition has been impaired or is in imminent danger of becoming impaired as the result of the failure of his parent or guardian, as herein defined, to exercise a minimum degree of care (a) in supplying the child with adequate food, clothing, shelter, education, medical or surgical care though financially able to do so or though offered financial or other reasonable means to do so, or (b) in providing the child with proper supervision or guardianship, by unreasonably inflicting or allowing to be inflicted harm, or substantial risk thereof, including the infliction of excessive corporal punishment; or by any other acts of a similarly serious nature requiring the aid of the court; (5) or a child who has been willfully abandoned by his parent or guardian, as herein defined; (6) or a child upon whom excessive physical restraint has been used under circumstances which do not indicate that the child’s behavior is harmful to himself, others, or property; (7) or a child who is in an institution and (a) has been placed there inappropriately for a continued period of time with the knowledge that the placement has resulted or may continue to result in harm to the child’s mental or physical well-being or (b) who has been willfully isolated from ordinary social contact under circumstances which indicate emotional or social deprivation.
If the person is convicted and assumed responsibility for the care of the child, then he or she is guilty of a second degree crime. Second degree offenses carry a potential prison sentence between five to ten years. If the defendant is not a parent or guardian and did not assume any care taking role, then he or she is guilty of a third degree crime and subject to a prison term between three to five years.
Accused of Endangering the Welfare of a Child in New Jersey?
If you are under investigation for endangering the welfare of a child or have been charged with child abuse or neglect in New Jersey, our attorneys can help. Please contact us anytime at (201)-556-1570 for a free consultation about your specific situation. We regularly assist clients throughout the state with legal matters involving the Division of Child Protection and Permanency, as well as criminal prosecution for child endangerment and other child-related criminal offenses.
For additional information regarding the aforementioned case, access the following article: Justices Say No Actual Harm Needed to Prove Child Endangerment