Gov. Jay Nixon signed legislation Wednesday intended to strengthen protections for elderly and disabled Missourians against financial exploitation.
Missouri already has a law that makes it a crime to take financial advantage of an elderly or disabled person through deception, intimidation or force. However, officials say it has been difficult for prosecutors to prove cases of financial exploitation when the perpetrator has guardianship or power of attorney.
Under the newly approved law, it now will be a crime to use "undue influence" to exploit someone's "vulnerable state of mind, neediness, pain or agony." That specifically could be applied to instances of improper or fraudulent use of power of attorney, guardianship, conservatorship or other fiduciary authority.
Nixon, a Democrat, was holding bill signing ceremonies Wednesday at senior centers in Springfield and at the Bridgeton Senior Center in the St. Louis area. He said Missouri has an obligation to protect seniors.
"The changes I'm signing into law make it clear that, regardless of who you are, or what power you have over a person, financial exploitation of older Missourians is wrong; it is illegal; and the state will use the full force of the law to go after those who exploit vulnerable Missourians," Nixon said.
Supporters of the legislation, such as the Missouri AARP, have said the measure will help fill some gaps in current law while strengthening enforcement. They say older people can be at particular risk for exploitation, and the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services said that about one of every five calls it receives to an elder abuse hotline involves allegations of financial exploitation.
"This law will have some teeth in it," said Norma Collins, the advocacy director for Missouri AARP.
The criminal penalties for financial exploitation increase based upon the amount of money that is involved. Cases with less than $50 are a misdemeanor with a punishment of up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine. The most serious instances that involve more than $50,000 are treated as a top-level felony and carry a possible prison sentence of 10 years to 30 years, or life in prison.
In addition, the newly approved legislation also addresses elderly and disabled people who are eligible for Medicaid and live in nursing homes and other care facilities. People who receive funds on such residents' behalf but fail to send money owed to the facility also could be charged with financial exploitation. Anyone convicted under those circumstances could be ordered to pay restitution as a condition of sentencing with 10 percent of the payment going to the local prosecutor's office to help fund enforcement.
The bill signing Wednesday came just days before Nixon's deadline Saturday to sign or veto the legislation approved earlier this year by lawmakers. Among the roughly two-dozen measures yet to be signed or vetoed are several marque bills, including legislation dealing with contraception, local sales taxes on vehicle purchases and regulation of highway billboards.