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Minnesota Legislature

Vulnerable adult neglect penalties

Published (2/24/2012)
By Mike Cook
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Amy Sweasy, senior attorney with the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office, testifies before the House Judiciary Policy and Finance Committee Feb. 16 in support of a bill that would modify the penalty for criminal neglect of a vulnerable adult. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Steve Gottwalt, listens to the testimony. (Photo by Andrew VonBank)A change that supporters believe is long overdue and could be a model for the rest of the nation has garnered the support of a House committee.

Sponsored by Rep. Steve Gottwalt (R-St. Cloud), HF1945 would create a new felony crime for intentional deprivation of a vulnerable adult, such as with food, clothing, shelter or health care, when the caregiver “is reasonably able to make the necessary provisions.”

“Many of us have heard the horrendous stories about abuse of vulnerable adults and the fact that (the perpetrator) can only be charged with a gross misdemeanor,” Gottwalt said. He noted that the provider community, prosecutors and other “major players” worked together on the final product to make sure there were no unintended consequences to people caring for those in difficult situations. “This language is going to end up being a model for the nation,” he said.

Approved by the House Public Safety and Crime Prevention Policy and Finance Committee Feb. 23, it was sent to the House Ways and Means Committee.

Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman called current penalties inadequate. “A gross misdemeanor is the most serious penalty and that does not mean any jail time … particularly in situations where we’d see the intentional neglect results in amputation, when we find maggots, infected ulcers, when we see people left to rot in their own waste for weeks at a time.” He noted it’s currently a two-year felony for animal cruelty and five years for child neglect.

The bill provides for three affirmative defenses:

• the person employed by a facility is unable to “reasonably make the necessary provisions due to inadequate staffing levels, inadequate supervision, or institutional policies”;

• the defendant operates or manages a facility and did not knowingly or intentionally permit an employee to permit the criminal act; and

• where the caregiver “was acting reasonably and necessarily to provide care to another identified vulnerable adult.”

Rep. Tina Liebling (DFL-Rochester) supports the bill, but is concerned about the affirmative defenses. “The state has to prove beyond a reasonable doubt every element of the offense. When you put the burden on the defendant to come forward with something and prove it by a preponderance you may be in fact requiring the defendant to prove that the defendant is not guilty, which is unconstitutional. … I’ve seen statutes invalidated for that very thing.”

A companion, SF1586, sponsored by Sen. Warren Limmer (R-Maple Grove), awaits action by the Senate Finance Committee.

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