Legislation authored by Senator Robert Singer and Senate President Steve Sweeney that upgrades state law to better protect those with developmental disabilities from being victimized by the acts of others that are dangerous and potentially deadly was signed into law by Governor Christie. The bill, S-2940/A-4531, better defines reckless endangerment laws and increase punishment and penalties for putting others at risk, with the strongest penalties for those whose victims have cognitive impairments.
The newly signed law to better protect those with developmental disabilities was prompted by an incident that resulted in the near drowning of Parker Drake, a 19-year-old autistic man with diabetes. (Christine Marshall)
“Today’s bill signing is a major step forward in strengthening New Jersey laws to better protect those with developmental disabilities from being taken advantage of or being coerced into doing something that could harm themselves,” said Singer. “What happened to Parker Drake was deeply troubling and could have ended tragically. I commend Parker and his mother for having the courage to stand up and tell his story. These added protections should send a clear message that this type of bullying and dangerous acts against those with developmental disabilities won’t be tolerated in New Jersey and that those who do so will be held accountable.”
“This bill will update current law to better protect those with developmental disabilities from being victimized by thoughtless and even malicious acts of cruelty,” said Senator Sweeney. “These are potentially dangerous actions against those with vulnerabilities that can’t be tolerated or ignored. This should send a message that will help prevent acts of cruel indifference. ”
The need for the new law was highlighted by an incident in Manasquan, where Parker Drake, a 19-year-old autistic man with diabetes, was coerced into jumping into the frigid waters of the Atlantic Ocean in February in exchange for $20 and two packs of cigarettes. The two men who enticed the victim videotaped the encounter and posted it to social media. The victim survived, but his insulin device froze and he was put at risk of hypothermia and drowning.
Current law is limited in its ability to prosecute those who knowingly endanger others or target them because of a mental disability. Senator Singer and Senator Sweeney rewrote the current endangerment statutes into one generalized law that includes gradations in punishment based on the injury to the victim or the status of the victim.
Under the bill, it would be a crime of the fourth degree to recklessly engage in conduct that creates a “substantial risk of bodily injury” to a person with a developmental disability, punishable by a prison term up to 18 months or a fine up to $10,000, or both; a crime of the third degree if the conduct creates a “substantial risk of serious bodily injury,” with potential prison term of three to five years, a fine up to $15,000, or both, and a second degree crime if it creates a “substantial risk of death,” subject to a term of five to ten years, a fine up to $150,000, or both.
Senator Singer and Senator Sweeney worked on the legislation with a number of advocacy groups, including Autism New Jersey, Disability Rights New Jersey, NJ ARC and the New Jersey Council of Developmental Disabilities.
“Autism New Jersey is grateful for Senator Singer and Senator Sweeney’s leadership, compassion, and desire for justice. If their legislation is enacted, it would criminalize activity that creates substantial risk for individuals with developmental disabilities and assess greater legal penalties for such action,” said Dr. Suzanne Buchanan, Executive Director of Autism New Jersey. “Individuals with autism would have new protections under the law and make New Jersey a safer place for everyone, especially our most vulnerable citizens.”
The bill defines “developmental disability” as a severe, chronic disability attributable to a mental or physical impairment that is manifest before age 22, is likely to continue indefinitely, results in the need for continued care and results in substantial functional limitations in three or more of the following areas: self-care, receptive and expressive language, learning, mobility, self-direction and capacity for independent living or economic self-sufficiency.
The bill also establishes new criminal offenses when the victims are not developmentally disabled, with less severe penalties.