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Vulnerable Adult Abuse

A vulnerable adult in Arizona is a person aged 18 years or older, who cannot guard themselves against neglect, abuse, or exploitation due to a mental or physical impairment. Abuse of a vulnerable adult is a serious crime for which a conviction could earn you substantial time in prison. Also, reporting a vulnerable adult abuse conviction to potential employers does not portray your best attributes.

If you are facing charges of vulnerable adult abuse in Phoenix, AZ, you need the services of the experienced Phoenix Criminal Attorney. We will work tirelessly to represent you vigorously, contest the charges, and possibly keep you out of prison or avoid a conviction.

Arizona’s Law on Vulnerable Adult Abuse

Arizona’s legislature passed the Adult Protective Services Act (APSA) in 1988, with amendments in September 2003 to manage rising incidences of elder abuse across the state. The act increased criminal sanctions and civil penalties for anyone preying on the weak or the elderly. The legislation protects such people from emotional and physical abuse as well as financial exploitation.

APSA is commonly known as the Elder Abuse Statutes, but it also protects all vulnerable adults. Under Code  § 46-451 and code §13-3623, a vulnerable adult is any person who is 18 years or older, with a mental or physical impairment, and who cannot safeguard themselves from exploitation, neglect, or abuse. Therefore, the law may protect alcoholics and chronic drug users who cannot make rational decisions. Arizona’s Adult Protective Services (APS) investigates and brings charges of vulnerable adult abuse. The investigation is usually a follow up on reports from their hotlines or complaint website.

Under the Arizona Criminal Code §13-3623, there are two categories of vulnerable adult abuse as discussed below.

Category One

This category involves circumstances that are likely to cause serious physical injury or death. Under the code, you are liable for abuse of a vulnerable adult if you:

  • Cause a vulnerable adult to sustain bodily injury
  • Cause or permit a vulnerable adult in your custody or their health to be injured
  • Cause or allow a vulnerable adult to be in any situation that endangers them or their health.

This first category of abuse has the following schedule:

  • If you commit the offense knowingly and intentionally, you will face Class 2 felony charges
  • You will answer to Class 3 felony charges if the abuse is due to recklessness. Recklessness applies if you should be aware of the risk of danger, or if you choose to disregard conditions where there is a significant threat or circumstances that can contribute to abuse. Your response to the risk and conditions must also be a serious deviation from what a rational person would consider as normal behavior.
  • If you are criminally negligent, you may be liable for a Class 4 felony. To be accused of criminal negligence, the evidence must show that you did not recognize a significant risk that a rational person would have identified during the incident.

Category Two

In this category, the circumstances are unlikely to cause death or severe injury, but the victim suffers from abuse or harm. If your offense is in this category, you are likely to face the charges in the schedule below:

  • You will face class four felony charges if you cause abuse intentionally and knowingly
  • Recklessness will result in class 5 felony charges
  • Criminal negligence will lead to class 6 felony charges

Under Code §13-3623, the words endangered and abuse also include circumstances where you permit a vulnerable adult to:

  • Enter or stay in a vehicle or structure in which flammable, toxic, or volatile chemicals are stored, or
  • equipment is owned by a person who intends to manufacture dangerous drugs, contravening subsection A of 13-3407 paragraphs 3 and 4.

To violate this subsection of Code §13-3623, you do not need to have custody or care of the vulnerable adult. Furthermore, you may face Class 6 felony charges under the same code if you:

  • Knowingly or intentionally cause emotional abuse to a vulnerable adult residing or who receives services in a care facility. Such care includes health-related services, healthcare, or assistance with daily living activities.
  • Knowingly or intentionally cause or permit a vulnerable adult in your custody or care to suffer emotional abuse.

Exceptions to the Rule

While the law has put measures in place to protect vulnerable adults from abuse, there are some exceptions to the rules as follows:

  • A vulnerable adult’s condition may deteriorate, or they die after they directly or indirectly decline to receive health care. The person may refuse to accept care indirectly through either a surrogate ( 36-3231) or a guardian appointed by the court (§ 14-5303). You will not be culpable if you are a health caregiver fitting the definition in § 36-3201.
  • If a vulnerable adult is receiving spiritual treatment by prayer only, and the person would not be endangered, abused, or neglected if they were receiving medical treatment. Under such circumstances, you are not abusing a vulnerable adult.

Classifying Vulnerable Adult Abuse

Arizona has laws that protect vulnerable adults from different types of abuse. These forms of abuse include the following:

Physical Abuse

Arizona’s Criminal Codes § 46-451 and § 13-3623 define your actions as physical abuse of a vulnerable adult if you:

  • Inflict physical harm intentionally
  • Cause injury through acts of criminal negligence or omissions
  • Unlawfully imprison the person as defined in § 13-1303
  • Assault or abuse the person sexually

You can cause physical harm by kicking, slapping, hitting, or shoving a vulnerable adult. Using any restraints, including chemical restraints such as drugging a person to incapacity, may also cause physical harm.

Physical harm or injury is any physical condition that endangers a person’s welfare or health. It includes bleeding, malnutrition, pressure sores, bone fracture, and skin bruising. It also includes burns, dehydration, failure to thrive, injury to internal organs, soft tissue swelling, and subdural hematoma.

The most severe form of sexual abuse is rape, but any unwelcome sexualized behavior is abusive. Such action includes when you touch the person inappropriately, force the person to look at explicit pictures, take photographs, or engage the person in a sexual exhibition. 

Emotional Abuse

Criminal Code  § 13-3623 has a separate definition of emotional abuse. Emotional abuse of a vulnerable adult includes, but is not limited to the following:

  • Having a pattern of demeaning or ridiculing the person
  • Making derogatory remarks
  • Threatening to cause the person emotional or physical pain
  • Harassing the person verbally
  • Coercing them into isolation
  • Giving the silent treatment


The legal definition of neglect is in Section § 46-451 of Arizona’s Criminal Code. Neglect is when you deprive a vulnerable adult of necessities and services that they require to maintain minimum mental or physical health, without their informed consent. Such requirements include shelter, water, food, medication and medical services, supervision, heating, and cooling. If you fail to meet the physical, emotional, or social needs of a vulnerable adult, you may face charges of neglect, even when your actions are unintentional.


Under Section § 46-451, exploitation is the improper or illegal use of a vulnerable adult or their resources for your advantage. The most common form of exploitation is financial exploitation, which can deplete their resources and inhibit their quality of life. Financial exploitation includes the following:

  • The exploitation of assets: You will be committing an offense if you take advantage of a vulnerable adult’s assets. Such actions include removing the person’s valuables from their home while you unlawfully claim to protect the items. It also includes persuading the vulnerable adult to put your name on their house title, car title, or bank account.
  • Isolation to facilitate financial exploitation: It is an offense to ask a vulnerable adult to keep secrets about large financial transactions and not to consult with their family, lawyers, or bankers.
  • Exploitation after trauma: If you to take advantage of any vulnerable adult after a tragic event or illness, you will be acting unlawfully. Post-trauma exploitation includes the inappropriate transfer of assets, theft, or charging exorbitant fees for ordinary services.
  • Undue influence on estate planning: It is illegal for you to coerce a vulnerable person to change their estate planning documents in your favor. Such documentation includes trusts, will, or power of attorney.
  • Coercion to give or buy inappropriately: As a financial investment advisor or an insurance agent, it is illegal to coerce or trick a vulnerable adult into investing money against their best interests. If you represent a religious organization, it is unlawful to coerce or trick a vulnerable adult to donate money. The trickery or coercion may be through scams, offers that are too profitable to be legitimate, or products that are unsuitable for the person.

What the Prosecution Must Prove

For the prosecution to sustain charges of vulnerable adult abuse against you, the prosecutor should prove several elements beyond a reasonable doubt.

For charges of abuse that is likely to cause serious bodily harm or death, the prosecutor must prove that:

  • You were responsible for the injuries
  • That the vulnerable adult was in your custody when they suffered the abuse
  • That you either put or allowed endangerment of a vulnerable adult’s health.

You may still face charges of abuse, even if your actions are unlikely to cause serious physical harm or death. Also, you do not necessarily have to be the abuser. Permitting a vulnerable adult to suffer abuse or their health to be endangered is an offense.

Furthermore, the prosecution must prove that:

  • Your actions were intentional, meaning that you deliberately caused or permitted the abuse.
  • You acted knowingly: This means you were aware that the vulnerable adult was in danger of sustaining injuries either from you or from another person, but you permitted it.
  • You were reckless: Recklessness will apply if you were aware that the vulnerable adult was at risk of injury or their health was in danger. Recklessness charges apply if you acted in a way that deviates from how a rational person would act in similar circumstances.
  • Your actions were criminally negligent: Criminal negligence is more than simple carelessness or mistaken judgment. It is acting in a way that demonstrates some kind of disregard for human life.

Penalties for Vulnerable Adult Abuse

Vulnerable adult abuse is a crime that carries stiff penalties. Arizona has various categories of felonies that include first offenses and repeat offenses. The level of punishment depends on the type of transgression, the number of prior convictions, and the presence of mitigating or aggravating factors. Proving at least two mitigating factors will reduce your sentence to less than the minimum. Aggravating factors will increase your sentence beyond the maximum. The minimum felony sentence is 90 days. However, for the first offense, you are eligible for probation.

Mitigating factors include the following:

  • Your age
  • Being under duress
  • Your capacity to understand that your actions were wrong
  • Your role in the crime
  • Support from your family, community, or church.

Aggravating factors include the following:

  • Having an accomplice
  • Taking or damaging property
  • Threatening to use or using a deadly weapon
  • A history of past felonies
  • Your motivation such as financial gain or valuables
  • Committing the crime in a cruel, depraved, or heinous manner

Specific Penalties for Each Felony

If your actions are likely to cause serious bodily injury or death, the penalties are as follows:

  • For a first offense, you face a possible penalty of a maximum imprisonment of 24 years. If you have a prior conviction, the maximum penalty is 35 years in prison.
  • If the abuse was intentional, the offense is a class two felony. The penalty for a first offense is zero probation days, but if you have at least two prior convictions, you face a maximum 35-year prison term.
  • If your case involves recklessness, you will serve zero-days probation for the first offense. If you have two or more prior convictions, the maximum prison sentence is 25 years.

If your actions are unlikely to cause serious injury or death, the penalties are:

Class 2 felony:

  • First offense
    • Between four and ten years of imprisonment
    • Between $750 – $150,000 in fines
    • Both a fine and a prison term
  • Second offense: Between four and ten years in prison
  • Third offense: Imprisonment for between six and 18 and a half years
  • Fourth offense: A prison term ranging from 14 - 28 years

Class 3 felony:

  • First offense
    • Imprisonment for between two and seven years
    • Between $750 – $150,000 in fines
    • Both a fine and imprisonment
  • Second offense: A prison term of between 30 months to seven years
  • Third offense: Imprisonment for between four and a half to seven years
  • Fourth offense: Between 10 and 20 years in prison.

Class 4 felony:

  • First offense
    • Between 18 months and three years incarceration
    • Between $750 – $150,000 in fines
    • Both a fine and time in prison
  • Second offense: between 18 months and three years incarceration
  • Third offense: A prison term of between three and six years
  • Fourth offense: Time in prison for between eight and 12 years

Class 5 felony:

  • First offense
    • Imprisonment for between nine months and two years
    • Fines of between $750 – $150,000
    • Both time in prison and a fine
  • Second offense: prison time ranging from nine months to two years
  • Third offense: 18 months to three years in prison
  • Fourth offense: imprisonment for four to six years

Class 6 felony:

  • First offense
    • Imprisonment ranging from six to 18 months
    • Fines ranging from $750 to $150,000
    • Both a fine and a prison term.
  • Second offense: Incarceration for between six and 18 months
  • Third offense: A prison term ranging from 21 to 27 months
  • Fourth offense: Between three and four and a half years in prison

Common Defenses to Vulnerable Adult Abuse Charges

There are several ways to win your case or have your charges of vulnerable adult abuse reduced. Some of the most common defenses are as follows:

  • Proving that you did not act intentionally or knowingly to harm the person. This evidence will lower the severity of possible penalties
  • Providing prove that you were not engaged in reckless or negligent behavior, especially if the vulnerable adult sustained injuries from an accident such as a fall. Some accidents cannot be avoided even with the best care
  • Arguing that yours is a case of mistaken identity
  • Maintaining that another person is responsible for the abuse. Playing a minor role may be a mitigating factor that can reduce your penalties
  • Arguing that your accuser has impaired memory or is confused
  • Stating that you had no legal obligation to intervene in the circumstances
  • Saying that the alleged victim’s family member accused you falsely in a bid to gain control of the person’s assets
  • Demonstrating that you have successfully cared for the person in the past
  • Admitting that you erred in judgment, but the error did not amount to a criminal offense
  • Use of evidence of any mistakes made by law enforcement officers while arresting or interrogating you, such as denying you your constitutional rights

Consult a Criminal Attorney Near Me

Si enfrenta cargos de abuso de adultos vulnerables, debe actuar rápido y contactar a un abogado que pueda representarlo agresivamente. El sistema de justicia penal en Arizona es complejo. Por lo tanto, necesita un abogado experimentado que pueda navegar por el sistema en su nombre. En Phoenix Criminal Attorney, tenemos un historial de representación de clientes de Phoenix, AZ, en sus casos de abuso de adultos vulnerables. Llámenos al 602-551-8092 y lucharemos por el mejor resultado posible para usted.

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