TRENTON – A bill sponsored by Senator Paul A. Sarlo which would impose increased penalties for counterfeiting if the offense poses a risk to the health or safety of the general public was unanimously approved today by the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“Before a drug or cosmetic product is ever introduced to the market, it goes through months, if not years, of drug trials, safety testing and various other review to make sure that the dangers and side-effects don’t outweigh the benefits,” said Senator Sarlo, D-Bergen, Essex and Passaic, and Chairman of the Judiciary Committee. “As a result of this rigorous review, these products have earned a measure of public trust regarding their safety. However, as a result of that well-earned safe reputation, many of these products become targets to unscrupulous counterfeiters looking to short-cut the approval process for a quick buck, and when they risk public safety, they have to be held accountable.”
The bill, S-799, would upgrade the penalties associated with counterfeiting offenses when the offenses endanger public health. Under the bill, the fourth-degree crime of counterfeiting – which means that the offense involves fewer than 100 items bearing a counterfeit mark, has a total retail value of less than $1,000 or is a first conviction – would carry penalties on par with third-degree counterfeiting when the health and safety of the public is put in jeopardy. Third-degree counterfeiting – when the offense involves between 100 and 1,000 items bearing a counterfeit mark, has a total retail value between $1,000 and $15,000, or the offense is a second conviction – would carry penalties equivalent to a crime of the second degree.
Under current sentencing guidelines, a crime of the fourth degree is punishable by up to 18 months imprisonment, a fine of up to $10,000, or both. A crime of the third degree carries a term of imprisonment of between three to five years, a fine of up to $15,000, or both. Second-degree crimes carry a term of imprisonment between five to ten years, a fine of up to $150,000, or both.
“There has to be a different standard when a counterfeiter not only tries to capitalize on a product’s earned reputation, but also ignores health and safety precautions and puts consumers in danger,” said Senator Sarlo. “By itself, counterfeiting undermines a product’s legitimacy, but in cases when the public safety is called into question, we need higher penalties to act as a deterrent.”
Senator Sarlo noted that this bill was crafted after a 2007 Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office investigation which resulted in the seizure of thousands of counterfeit bottles of Stacker pills, a popular diet pill, from two North Jersey health food stores. The lawmaker noted that current criminal sentencing guidelines do not draw a difference between counterfeit handbags or sunglasses, which do not threaten public health, and counterfeit drugs and cosmetics, which circumvent federal product approval and could risk the health and safety of others.
“In these cases, we’re not talking about knock-off Gucci bags or Oakley sunglasses,” said Senator Sarlo. “These are potentially dangerous, unapproved drugs and cosmetic products which could create a health scare if exposed to a wide-enough population. When a counterfeiter decides that personal profit is more important than public safety, they have to be held to a higher standard of punishment.”
The bill now heads to the full Senate for approval.