On August 9, 2018, the New Jersey Supreme Court decided the Middlesex County case of State v. Danyell Fuqua. The principal issue was whether a defendant can be found guilty of second-degree endangering the welfare of a child when the State can only prove that the defendant exposed the child to a substantial risk of harm, as opposed to causing actual harm.
Justice Timpone wrote for a 4-3 majority of the Justices. He held the following in relevant part: N.J.S.A. 2C:24-4(a)(2) is clearly and readily capable of comprehension. We see 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 “applying this rule of construction would seemingly result in an uncomplicated interpretation of the statutory offense.” N.J.S.A. 2C:24-4(a)(2), plainly, does not delineate two distinct elements — proof of actual harm and harm qualifying as abuse or neglect under Title 9. Rather, the statute defines “harm” by expressly incorporating N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.21, which proscribes exposing a child to a substantial risk of harm.
We agree with the first dissent that “words make a difference,” post at ___ (slip op. at 5) (Albin, J., dissenting), and as such, we are bound to uphold the Legislature’s express incorporation of N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.21 into N.J.S.A. 2C:24-4(a), prohibiting the exposure of children to a substantial risk of harm. Those principal purposes then become the statute’s principal commands. No extrinsic evidence is necessary, rendering the first dissent’s analysis of legislative history unnecessary. Since the plain language of the statute is clear in its incorporation of N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.21, we similarly need not resort to the “doctrine of lenity” which is only pertinent “if an analysis of statutory language fails to resolve a statutory ambiguity.”
This case was decided in the State’s favor at the trial level and before a two-judge appellate panel in an unpublished decision issued in February of 2017. Here, the case was barely decided in the State’s favor over a three-Justice dissent.