In light of false bomb threats that affected New Jersey’s Jewish community and the rest of the country in recent years, the Assembly Judiciary Committee moved Thursday to advance legislation sponsored by Assembly Democrats Gordon Johnson, Valerie Vainieri Huttle, Gary Schaer and John McKeon to stiffen the penalties for creating a false public alarm.
“This sends a strong message that hate-based intimidation will not be tolerated,” said Johnson (D-Bergen). “While the persistent threats we’ve seen in recent years may have subsided, we want to make it clear that these types of bigoted threats will not be tolerated in our State.”
New Jersey, along with a number of other states, was the target of a series of bomb threats aimed at Jewish Community Centers, temples and schools in early 2017. An Israeli-American was indicted in April 2017 in connection with the threats, but not before the state boosted patrol efforts at houses of worship and increased grant money to help non-profits and religious institutions beef up security.
“False threats like these are psychologically damaging and also have the potential to cause physical harm if they incite panic,” said Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen). “When you add a biased motivation to the mix, they become damaging to the community at large. No one should have to live in fear simply for going to their house of worship or their community center.”
Specifically, the bill (A-724) would add creating a false public alarm to the list of underlying offenses for bias intimidation.
Under current law, depending upon the circumstances, the crime of creating a false public alarm can range from a fourth degree to a first degree crime. However, bias intimidation is a crime graded one degree higher than the most serious underlying crime. Therefore, the bill will automatically heighten the penalties for creating a false public alarm if it is found to be part of bias intimidation.
The sponsors noted that in cases where the underlying crime is of the first degree, for example, the defendant, upon conviction, may be sentenced to a term of imprisonment between 15 and 30 years, with a presumptive term of 20 years.
“A country founded on the notion of freedom of religion must do everything in its power to protect that sacrament,” said Schaer (D-Bergen, Passaic). “As a state, we are making it clear that anyone caught making these types of hateful threats in the future could very well find themselves behind bars for 20 to 30 years.”
“These bias-based threats had a profound impact on a number of our communities,” said McKeon (D-Essex, Morris). “No one should be subjected to this type of targeted discrimination, especially not because of their faith. Stiffening these penalties is the right thing to do and hopefully sends a clear, strong message.”
Under existing law, a person is guilty of the crime of bias intimidation if he commits, attempts to commit, conspires with another to commit, or threatens the immediate commission of certain offenses with, among other things, the purpose of intimidating an individual or group of individuals because of race, color, religion, gender, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, national origin, or ethnicity. The offenses include, but are not limited to, terroristic threats, assault, murder, and arson.
Under existing law, a person is guilty of creating a false public alarm if he initiates or circulates a report or warning of an impending fire, explosion, crime, catastrophe, emergency or any other incident knowing that the report or warning is false or baseless and that is likely to cause an evacuation of a building, place of assembly, or facility of public transport, or to cause public inconvenience or alarm.
The measure now goes to the Speaker for further consideration.