The four-Justice majority continued: In light of the statute’s plain language, our 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.
In M.L., after police arrested the defendant for shoplifting, she conveyed that her fifteen-month-old child, C.L., was with a babysitter. Police later entered the defendant’s apartment and discovered C.L. asleep, unattended in a playpen. C.L. was sweating in the ninety-degree heat, and the apartment was littered with dirty diapers and laundry, plates of spoiled food, and dog feces. A jury later found the defendant guilty of endangering the welfare of children under N.J.S.A. 2C:24-4(a)(2). On appeal, the defendant argued that “the trial court misinterpreted the statute as not requiring the State to show that the child suffered physical harm.” The Appellate Division disagreed and affirmed, concluding that “we do not read N.J.S.A. 2C:24-4(a)(2) as calling for a demonstration of actual physical harm.”
Over ten years later, in N.A., a jury convicted the defendant under N.J.S.A. 2C:24-4(a)(2) for having severely beaten her two-year-old son (actual harm). The Appellate Division affirmed the conviction, holding that N.J.S.A. 2C:24-4(a)(2) and the Title 9 offense of cruelty and neglect of children each “criminalizes the same harm or risk of harm to the child.” Specifically, the Appellate Division concluded that the incorporation by reference of N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.21 in N.J.S.A. 2C:24-4(a)(2), “does not require that any act or omission of the parent result in specific harm to the child. The focus is on the conduct of the parent which exposes the child to a ‘substantial risk’ of death or physical harm.”
The decision continues with the New Jersey Supreme Court’s recent trend of making it easier for the State to obtain convictions. Former Governor Christie’s influence on the Court can be seen here where he appointed all four of the Justices in the majority and none of the three dissenters.