According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the U.S. population age 65 and over grew nearly five times faster than the total population over the 100 years from 1920 to 2020. As of the 2020 Census, the older population in the U.S. numbered 55.8 million, representing 16.8 percent of the population of the United States. The rapid increase in the number of older Americans has caused a corresponding increase in instances of elder abuse. In Tennessee, elder abuse can be a criminal offense. If you have been accused of elder abuse, a Murfreesboro criminal defense lawyer at Bennett | Michael | Hornsby explains what constitutes the crime of elder abuse in Tennessee and the potential penalties if you are convicted.
Elder Abuse and the Justice System: Civil vs. Criminal
At both the federal and state level, judicial systems in the U.S. are divided into civil and criminal courts. Most legal issues fall squarely into one court system; however, elder abuse can be either a civil or criminal issue. For example, if a caregiver is accused of abusing an elderly patient, the patient (or his/her guardian) can file a civil lawsuit asking for monetary damages based on the allegations of abuse or neglect. The same caregiver, however, could also be charged with a criminal offense in the State of Tennessee for abusing an elderly patient.
What Are the Elements of the Crime of Elder Abuse in Tennessee?
Like many states, the State of Tennessee makes it a crime to abuse or neglect an elderly individual. Tennessee Code § 39-15-510 makes it a crime to “knowingly abuse an elderly or vulnerable adult.” For purposes of the crime of elder abuse, the word “abuse” refers to the infliction of physical harm.
Tennessee defines an “elderly” person as anyone aged 70 or older while a “vulnerable adult” refers to any adult, aged 18 or older who, “because of intellectual disability or physical dysfunction, is unable to fully manage the person’s own resources, carry out all or a portion of the activities of daily living, or fully protect against neglect, exploitation, or hazardous or abusive situations without assistance from others.” Someone aged 60 who is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, for example, would not be considered “elderly” but would likely be considered a “vulnerable adult.”
Tennessee Code § 39-15-507 makes it a crime to “knowingly neglect an elderly or vulnerable adult, so as to adversely affect the person’s health or welfare.” Neglect, under the Tennessee Code, can refer to any of the following:
- The failure of a caregiver to provide the care, supervision, or services necessary to maintain the physical health of an elderly or vulnerable adult, including, but not limited to, the provision of food, water, clothing, medicine, shelter, medical services, a medical treatment plan prescribed by a healthcare professional, basic hygiene, or supervision that a reasonable person would consider essential for the well-being of an elderly or vulnerable adult.
- The failure of a caregiver to make a reasonable effort to protect an elderly or vulnerable adult from abuse, sexual exploitation, neglect, or financial exploitation by others.
Financial exploitation of an elderly person is also a criminal offense in Tennessee. Governed by Tennessee Code § 39-15-502, makes it a crime to “knowingly financially exploit an elderly or vulnerable adult.” Financial exploitation is defined as any of the following:
- The use of deception, intimidation, undue influence, force, or threat of force to obtain or exert unauthorized control over an elderly or vulnerable adult’s property with the intent to deprive the elderly or vulnerable adult of property.
- The breach of a fiduciary duty to an elderly or vulnerable adult by the person’s guardian, conservator, or agent under a power of attorney which results in an appropriation, sale, or transfer of the elderly or vulnerable adult’s property.
- The act of obtaining or exercising control over an elderly or vulnerable adult’s property, without receiving the elderly or vulnerable adult’s effective consent, by a caregiver committed with the intent to benefit the caregiver or other third party.
What Is the Potential Punishment If I Am Convicted of Elder Abuse in Tennessee?
Both elder abuse and neglect are charged as a Class D felony if perpetrated against a vulnerable adult and as a Class E felony against an elderly adult. A Class E felony carries a potential sentence of one to six years in prison and/or a fine of up to $3,000 while a Class D felony may be punished by a term of imprisonment of two to 12 years and/or a fine of up to $5,000.
Financial exploitation of an elderly or vulnerable adult is charged using the same classification system as theft, meaning the level of the misdemeanor or felony charged will depend on the amount of money or assets involved, but when the alleged victim is an elderly or vulnerable adult you will be punished one classification higher. In other words, if the dollar amount involved would be charged as a Class E felony, you will be charged with a Class D felony because of the alleged victim’s status as elderly or vulnerable.
Contact a Murfreesboro Criminal Defense Lawyer
If you have been charged with elder abuse in Tennessee, consult with an experienced Murfreesboro criminal defense lawyer at Bennett | Michael | Hornsby as soon as possible. Contact the team today by calling 615-898-1560 to schedule your free appointment.
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