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State v. Fuqua

Supreme Court of New Jersey

August 9, 2018

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, Plaintiff-Respondent,
v.
DANYELL FUQUA, Defendant-Appellant.

          Argued April 10, 2018

          On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.

          Matthew Astore, Deputy Public Defender, argued the cause for appellant (Joseph E. Krakora, Public Defender, attorney; Matthew Astore, of counsel and on the briefs, and John A. Albright, Designated Counsel, on the brief).

          Nancy A. Hulett, Assistant Prosecutor, argued the cause for respondent (Andrew C. Carey, Middlesex County Prosecutor, attorney; Nancy A. Hulett, of counsel and on the briefs).

          Sarah D. Brigham, Deputy Attorney General, argued the cause for amicus curiae Attorney General of New Jersey (Gurbir S. Grewal, Attorney General, attorney; Sarah D. Brigham, of counsel and on the brief).

          TIMPONE, J., writing for the Court.

         In this case, the Court considers whether the State must prove actual harm to a child to convict a defendant under N.J.S.A. 2C:24-4(a), endangering the welfare of children.

         In September 2011, the Middlesex County Prosecutor's Office opened a narcotics investigation into Tyrell Johnson that later swept in defendant Danyell Fuqua. In the early morning hours of December 10, 2011, after obtaining a search warrant, officers entered a motel room. There, the officers found defendant, Johnson, and six children between the ages of one and thirteen -- three were defendant's children, one was Johnson's child, and two were defendant's relatives. The small room had a kitchenette, two beds, and a bathroom. On the kitchen table, officers found marijuana, a grinder containing marijuana residue, an open box of clear plastic bags, and a white, unlabeled pill bottle holding various, multicolored pills. Between the two beds, officers discovered three loose packets of heroin, a separate plastic orange bag holding 653 packets of heroin, and one large bag of cocaine. Below the rear wall window, officers found an exposed black plastic bag holding 201 packets of heroin and fourteen plastic bags containing cocaine next to children's shoes and a toy. Officers also discovered a digital scale covered in white cocaine residue on a nearby windowsill. Johnson subsequently pled guilty to drug distribution charges, and a jury convicted defendant of endangering the welfare of children, contrary to N.J.S.A. 2C:24-4(a).

         The trial court denied defendant's motion for a judgment of acquittal, finding that the State need not prove actual harm to children to convict under N.J.S.A. 2C:24-4(a). The Appellate Division affirmed, and the Court granted certification. 230 N.J. 560 (2017).

         HELD: The trial court and Appellate Division correctly determined that a conviction under N.J.S.A. 2C:24-4(a) can be sustained by exposing children to a substantial risk of harm.

         1. N.J.S.A. 2C:24-4(a)(2) provides, in pertinent part: "[a]ny 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 [N.J.S.A.] 9:6-1, [N.J.S.A.] 9:6-3 and . . . [N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.21] is guilty of a crime of the second degree." N.J.S.A. 9:6-3 delineates, in relevant part, that "[a]ny parent, guardian or person having the care, custody or control of any child, who shall abuse, abandon, be cruel to or neglectful of such child, or any person who shall abuse, be cruel to or neglectful of any child shall be deemed to be guilty of a crime of the fourth degree." (emphasis added). N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.21, in pertinent part, defines "[a]bused or neglected child" as including: "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 . . . to exercise a minimum degree of care . . . in providing the child with proper supervision or guardianship, by unreasonably inflicting or allowing to be inflicted harm, or substantial risk thereof . . . or by any other acts of a similarly serious nature requiring the aid of the court." (emphases added). (pp. 8-9)

         2. N.J.S.A. 2C:24-4(a)(2) is clearly and readily capable of comprehension. The Court sees no ambiguity in the Legislature incorporating a "substantial risk" of harm from N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.21 into N.J.S.A. 2C:24-4(a), so the appellate panel here properly concluded that "[a]pplying this rule of construction would seemingly result in an uncomplicated interpretation of the statutory offense." N.J.S.A. 2C:24-4(a)(2) defines "harm" by expressly incorporating N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.21, which proscribes exposing a child to a substantial risk of harm. No extrinsic evidence is necessary, nor is resort to the doctrine of lenity which is only pertinent if an analysis of statutory language fails to resolve a statutory ambiguity. (pp. 10-11)

         3. New Jersey appellate courts for decades have unanimously held that the State is not required to prove actual harm to a child to convict under N.J.S.A. 2C:24-4(a)(2). Instead, they have concluded that proof of a child's exposure to a substantial risk of harm is sufficient to sustain a conviction. See, e.g., State v. N.A., 355 N.J.Super. 143, 150-51 (App. Div. 2002); State v. M.L., 253 N.J.Super. 13, 31 (App. Div. 1991) (collecting cases). Not one published appellate opinion holds otherwise. The Court finds no reason to disturb that decades-old sound precedent predicated on the plain language of the statute and notes that the legislative branch is presumed to be aware of judicial constructions of statutory provisions. Had the Legislature chosen to insist on proof of actual harm to a child to convict under N.J.S.A. 2C:24-4(a)(2), it was free to amend the statute, as it did in other aspects of the statute, in the nearly three decades since M.L. The statute expressly subsumes the Title 9 provisions signaling a legislative intent to broaden the statutory definition of "harm." It would show little respect for the legislature were courts to suppose that the lawmakers meant to enact an irrational scheme. (pp. 11-14)

         4. In this case the State successfully proved that defendant exposed the children in her care to imminent danger and a substantial risk of harm pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2C:24-4(a). Six underage children, ranging in age from one to thirteen, were housed in a confined space. Drugs hauntingly surrounded children's toys and clothing. The ease of 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 been easily sprung at any moment. (pp. 14-15)

         5. The Court considers the concerns of giving prosecutors too much discretion in choosing to charge under N.J.S.A. 2C:24-4(a)(2), a second-degree crime, over Title 9, a fourth-degree offense. Criminal statutes can overlap in prohibiting the same basic act, and in those situations the proper prosecuting authority in the sound exercise of the discretion committed to him or her may proceed under either act. Prosecutorial discretion, however, is not unlimited, and judicial oversight is mandated to protect against arbitrary and capricious prosecutorial decisions. A defendant who proves that a prosecutor's exercise of discretion was arbitrary and capricious would be entitled to relief. Here, there is no evidence that the prosecutor abused her discretion in choosing to charge defendant under N.J.S.A. 2C:24-4(a)(2) instead of Title 9. Defendant bears the burden of proving that the prosecutor acted arbitrarily and capriciously but provided no reasonable justification as to why the prosecutor should have charged her under Title 9 instead of N.J.S.A. 2C:24-4(a)(2). Rather, defendant claims generally that prosecutors retain too much discretion in choosing whether to charge defendants under N.J.S.A. 2C:24-4(a)(2) or Title 9. That contention, however, is directly contrary to precedent that provides prosecutors such discretion. Defendant has similarly not provided any evidence that the prosecutor's decision to charge under N.J.S.A. 2C:24-4(a) was discriminatory or predicated on prejudice. Indeed, the record here provided the prosecutor ample justification for her decision to charge defendant under N.J.S.A. 2C:24-4(a)(2). (pp. 15-18)

         AFFIRMED.

          JUSTICE ALBIN, dissenting, expresses the view that a sensible textual construction of the endangering statute -- consistent with its language and legislative intent -- would be to require harm as a precondition to the examples given in the abuse-and-neglect statutes. Justice Albin adds that the majority's position is at odds with the legislative history of the endangering statute; that even if N.A. and M.L. were "sound" precedent, they are factually distinguishable; that legislative acquiescence is a slender reed on which to justify a mistaken Appellate Division interpretation of a statute; and that when two reasonable interpretations can be given to a statute riddled with ambiguity, the doctrine of lenity instructs that the interpretation favoring the defendant must prevail. According to Justice Albin, by removing the harm requirement from the endangering statute, the majority has criminalized the civil abuse-and-neglect statute.

          CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER, dissenting, is of the view that the meaning of the endangering law is ambiguous and should therefore be read narrowly. Chief Justice Rabner notes the State's strong argument that the phrase "causes the child harm" cannot be read separately from the words that follow, and that defendant sensibly emphasizes that "harm" means "harm" -- not "risk" of harm. Observing that the legislative history does not resolve the debate and that, in this case, the trial court noted "the absence of any direct evidence of actual harm to the children," Chief Justice Rabner reasons that, because defendant's conviction is based on the more expansive reading of the statute, it should not stand.

          JUSTICES PATTERSON, FERNANDEZ-VINA, and SOLOMON join in JUSTICE TIMPONE's opinion. JUSTICE ALBIN filed a dissent, in which JUSTICE LaVECCHIA joins. CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER filed a dissent.

          OPINION

          TIMPONE JUSTICE.

         In this case, the Court considers whether the State must prove actual harm to a child to convict a defendant under N.J.S.A. 2C:24-4(a), endangering the welfare of children. Because the trial court and Appellate Division correctly determined that a conviction under N.J.S.A. 2C:24-4(a) can be sustained by exposing children to a substantial risk of harm, we affirm their denial of defendant Danyell Fuqua's motion for a judgment of acquittal.

         I.

         We marshal these facts from the record.

         In September 2011, the Middlesex County Prosecutor's Office opened a narcotics investigation into Tyrell Johnson that later swept in defendant Fuqua. Defendant checked into a Studio Motel 6 in late September 2011. That December, in conjunction with the ongoing investigation, a task force began surveillance of the Studio Motel 6. In the early morning hours of December 10, 2011, after obtaining a search warrant, officers entered room 205. There, the officers found defendant, Johnson, and six children between the ages of one and thirteen -- three were defendant's children, one was Johnson's child, and two were defendant's relatives. The small room had a kitchenette, two beds, and a bathroom. Upon their entry, officers smelled the lingering odor of raw and burnt marijuana.

         On the kitchen table, officers found marijuana, a grinder containing marijuana residue, an open box of clear plastic bags, and a white, unlabeled pill bottle holding various, multicolored pills. Between the two beds, officers discovered a lockbox with key inserted containing several items of jewelry, three loose packets of heroin, a separate plastic orange bag holding 653 packets of heroin, and one large bag of cocaine. Below the rear wall window, officers found an exposed black plastic bag holding 201 packets of heroin and fourteen plastic bags containing cocaine. To the immediate left and right of the drug-laden black plastic bag were children's shoes and a "little puppy dog" toy. Officers also discovered a digital scale covered in white cocaine residue on a nearby windowsill. In addition to the narcotics and related paraphernalia, officers came upon five cell phones, more than $2000 in cash located in a purse on the kitchen table, and around $1700 belonging to Johnson.

         Johnson subsequently pled guilty to drug distribution charges, and a jury convicted defendant of endangering the welfare of children, contrary to N.J.S.A. 2C:24-4(a).

         The trial court denied defendant's motion for a judgment of acquittal, finding that the State need not prove actual harm to children to convict under N.J.S.A. 2C:24-4(a). Rather, relying on ample appellate precedent, the court held that the State needed only prove, and did prove, that a child faced a "risk" of harm sufficient to convict under N.J.S.A. 2C:24-4(a).

         The Appellate Division affirmed, holding that the phrase "causes harm" in N.J.S.A. 2C:24-4(a) refers not only to one who causes actual harm, but also to one who "unreasonably allows a substantial risk of harm." The panel concluded that the children here were in "imminent danger" and exposed to a "substantial risk of harm" given the small motel room, the number of children present, and the large quantity of accessible drugs to which they were exposed and which they could easily have ingested.

         We granted certification. 230 N.J. 560 (2017). We also granted amicus curiae status to the Attorney General of New Jersey.

         II.

         A.

         Defendant urges us to reverse the Appellate Division's conclusion that exposing a child to a substantial risk of harm is sufficient to convict under N.J.S.A. 2C:24-4(a).

         Defendant maintains that under N.J.S.A. 2C:24-4(a)'s plain language a conviction may be based only on evidence establishing actual harm, and that the statute also includes the requisite elements for a finding of abuse or neglect under Title 9. Defendant proposes that N.J.S.A. 2C:24-4(a)'s reference to Title 9 is convoluted, resulting in the Appellate Division's erroneous conclusion that "risk of harm" equals "harm."

         Defendant also raises fears that if the Appellate Division's holding is left undisturbed, prosecutors will retain unbridled discretion in choosing between a second-degree prosecution under N.J.S.A. 2C:24-4(a) and a fourth-degree prosecution under Title 9.

         B.

         The State stresses that we should affirm the Appellate Division's conclusion that a conviction under N.J.S.A. 2C:24-4(a) can be sustained by proving a risk of harm to a child without proof of actual harm.

         The State notes that its proposition is bolstered by numerous appellate opinions, all holding that N.J.S.A. 2C:24-4(a), in all its incarnations, subsumed exposing a child to a substantial risk of harm into the statute through Title 9. The State maintains that "risk of harm" is apparent from the plain language of the statute.

         The State reasons that if conduct violates more than one statute, prosecutors retain discretion in deciding which charge to pursue provided that they do not discriminate against any class of defendants and that their choice is not arbitrary, capricious, or a patent or gross abuse of discretion.

         C.

         The Attorney General also argues that both the plain language and legislative history of N.J.S.A. 2C:24-4(a) indicate the Legislature's intent to include "risk of harm." The Attorney General notes that the title of the statute -- Endangering Welfare of Children -- connotes legislative intent to include the risk of harm. The Attorney General counters with specific references defendant's notion of linguistic gymnastics by the Appellate Division, with respect to its finding that "causes harm" equals "risk of harm." The Attorney General notes that "endanger" is defined as "put[ting] (someone or something) at risk or in danger." (quoting New Oxford American Dictionary 561 (1st ed. 2001)). The Attorney General cites numerous appellate cases that interpret N.J.S.A. 2C:24-4(a)(2) to encompass a substantial risk of harm. Taking the precedent and common definitional usage together, the Attorney General maintains that defendant knowingly subjected the six children in her care to a substantial risk of harm because the children had easy access to a large quantity and variety of drugs intermingled among their ...


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